The dispersal of the two-day AHL constellation within the Dunkin Donuts Center has Don Sweeney, assistant general manager of the Boston Bruins, keen on insuring a sustained overwhelming black-and-gold zest in Rhode Island.
As the honorary captain of the Eastern Conference All-Stars, Sweeney was treated to arguably the most appreciative individual reception during the introductions at both Sunday’s skills competition and Monday’s All-Star Game.
The selection and the reception were his reward for two-plus decades of service to the Bruins, both as a longtime defenseman and now as an executive. More importantly, he noted, it is another reminder of the fertile grounds for fanfare Boston has south of the state border.
“It just goes to show how passionate the fans in New England are and how supportive they are of the Providence Bruins and the Bruins organization in general,” Sweeney said in the P-Bruins coaches’ office after Monday night’s game. “It’s a testament to how well this organization here in Providence is run.”
A listed audience of 10,846 (AHL.com) watched the Western Conference squeak past the Eastern Conference, 7-6, on Monday. The crowd was a not-so-surprising elevation from the average of 7,409 spectators who have filed in for the P-Bruins’ first 22 home dates in 2011-12, the fourth-best median in the AHL.
Attendance at The Dunk has increased with every successive year since 2007-08 despite a lack of Calder Cup playoff action in the past three seasons. It is safe to assume that part of the increase is owed to replenished regional interest in the parent club, which began its renaissance and rise to championship contention under Claude Julien in 2007-08.
For the Ocean State sector of the Bruins fanbase, this has meant seeing the rise of members of the 2011 Stanley Cup club and the remaining core. It has meant watching for more of the same in the way of rising household names.
Immediately prior to the 2011-12 season, it meant celebrating the title with a visit from Sweeney and the Cup at the Rhode Island Convention Center. And it meant witnessing an intra-squad scrimmage that instilled an atmosphere comparable to that of this past weekend’s AHL festivities.
Now, however, Sweeney is expressly bent on spreading the recent playoff pizzazz from TD Garden down to The Dunk.
“I think that we need to put that on the front burner this year to get the players a little higher expectation from a winning aspect. It’s so important for players to continue to develop and play in that atmosphere.
“In years past, we certainly have kept our eye on the development aspect of the organization and given the players a longer rope to make some mistakes. But I think now we’ve got a healthy competition internally to continue to push the grid forward, both from the development component and the winning component.
“This team, hopefully, will continue to move forward and secure a playoff position so these kids all get that experience.”
So far, so good. At the All-Star break, with 41 games down and 35 remaining, Providence is fifth in the Eastern Conference in both point total and winning percentage. If the standings were to freeze in place from now through late April, the P-Bruins would be facing the Syracuse Crunch in the first round of the postseason.
The last time there was Calder Cup tournament action at The Dunk, Boston was still a little less than 25 months away from its cathartic triumph. That 2011 playoff run not only saw New England’s first Stanley Cup victory since 1972, but also the team’s first appearance in the third, let alone fourth round, before the AHL affiliate transferred from Maine.
Sweeney, himself a former Maine Mariner, acknowledges that in the post-All-Star afterglow, the future will not yield a much better opportunity to capitalize on and amplify Rhode Island’s Bruin buzz.
If Providence garners bonus action―given the healthy support as it is and the not-too-distant memories from the Garden―Sweeney said, “I think you would see the fan support even greater, to get back into the playoffs and have that atmosphere in the same capacity as up top (in Boston).
“Hopefully, we can do that, because the players can benefit from playing in a pressure-packed atmosphere that we know the fanbase here will deliver if we can deliver as players.”
Al Daniel is an NHL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this story were obtained firsthand.