Odds are no one in the Boston Bruins’ sphere of influence understands droughts quite like those residing in the Rhode Island branch.
Since the Maine Mariners transferred in 1992, the year of their parent club’s previous trip to the NHL’s conference finals, the rechristened Providence Bruins have seen 14 of their alumni reach a Stanley Cup Final. Of those 14, 10 have won a ring.
Yet none have ever done it under the spoked-B banner or under the roof of the Boston Garden or TD Garden.
Not even Peter Laviolette, who captained the Baby Bs in four of their first five seasons, then coached them through a record-setting Calder Cup campaign in 1999. Laviolette’s black and gold legacy was cut off (along with speculation he would replace Mike Keenan) in 2001 and he proceeded to win a cup with Carolina in 2006 and steer Philadelphia to last year’s final.
Not even John Grahame, who backstopped the aforementioned title run and was notably tearful when Boston dealt him to Tampa Bay in 2003 after nearly six years as a Bruin. Within 17 months, Grahame went from pouring out eye water to pouring champagne with the rest of the triumphant Bolts.
Not even Aaron Downey, a fan favorite from the 1998-99 banner year for his peerless and fearless combativeness. Downey still owns the franchise record with 1,059 career penalty minutes, which he added to with a brief return in 2007, one year before hoisting Lord Stanley with the Detroit Red Wings.
Sure, the P-Bruins have adorned their rafters and invigorated their fans with four divisional championships, two regular season titles, one Calder Cup banner and four return trips to the conference finals.
But conventionally, fostering the future of a given NHL franchise is placed even higher in an AHL team’s job description. For that reason, Providence has been lacking in its legacy as a quintessential farm club. The parents may have been to blame, but from their birth to the tail end of their teenhood, not much came of the Providence Bruins once any of them were in Boston.
That was until Friday night, when a band of Spoked-Bs featuring seven Spoked-P graduates nipped the Tampa Bay Lightning, 1-0, and put the franchise in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 21 years.
There is something about one’s local minor league team, best defined as “accessibility,” that plants a permanent magnet between the eyes of the fans and the individuals who don the laundry, for however long or short that might be.
Seeing a pro athlete perform in person, let alone on a regular basis, let alone with little effect on one’s checking balance or the mileage on one’s car, inevitably makes that athlete more alluring to the fan as he moves to the next echelon of the game.
That goes for David Krejci. The second-round Boston draftee from 2004 broke into the professional ranks with Providence in 2006, logged 94 regular season and 13 postseason games there, and is now Boston’s leading goal-getter through three 2011 playoff rounds. His setup on Nathan Horton’s clincher Friday night kept him tied with Horton for the team lead with 17 postseason points.
That goes for Patrice Bergeron. The alternate captain was already a household name upon finishing his rookie NHL season in 2003-04 when he chose to spend the subsequent lockout year on the farm. All he did that year was post a 21-40-61 transcript in 68 games and add 12 playoff points en route to the third round.
Given that, and all the highs and lows that Boston’s longest-tenured skater has been through since, it is safe to bet that the citizens of the 617 and 401 area codes are smiling the broadest for Bergeron.
That goes for Brad Marchand. Of the seven active Providence alumni, he was the one most recently seen in action at the Dunkin Donuts Center, specifically on Feb. 21, 2010 against the Abbotsford Heat. A mere 15 months later, he trails only his linemate Bergeron and the aforementioned Krejci and Horton atop the Bruins’ playoff scoring charts with 12 points.
That goes for Adam McQuaid, who like Marchand was in Providence during the first half of last season, then thrust into a baptismal NHL fire sooner than planned when the injury bug invaded Claude Julien’s locker room. He has since acclimated and taken no fewer than 17 shifts in any of his 15 full-length playoff appearances.
That goes for Johnny Boychuk and Tuukka Rask, who concomitantly settled into the Hub early last season on the heels of piloting Providence to the 2009 Eastern Conference championship round.
And that goes especially for Tim Thomas, who made the Divine City his last of nine semipro stops before finally earning a permanent spot in The Show in 2006-07. He and Rask are two of only six P-Bruins stoppers with more than 100 career games in Providence.
Translation: Dunk-going puckheads didn’t merely get first dibs on the brisk breed of goaltending that shook off four goal-fests and shut out Tampa Bay in the do-or-die bout at the Garden. They, more than any other fan base, can testify to Thomas’ fairy-tale perseverance.
And they got a protracted, quantitative preview of things to come in the organization. That’s what will happen when a local minor league base nurtures the right talent and the parent club makes efficient use of it afterward.
All around the Hub of Hockey, Mainers were the last legion of fans to have a feeling like this. And after 19 years of waiting, the Bruins buffs of the Ocean State have their turn.