While nothing is ever technically guaranteed, everyone will be better off the sooner hockey fans in the heart of Connecticut come to terms with the Hartford Whalers being gone for good.
It has been 15 years since "the Whale" bolted the congested virtual dividing line between New England and New York sports allegiance. But while the NHL’s Battle of New England is strictly a trove of memories now, there has been a radiant silver lining for both Boston Bruins buffs and the not-so-orphaned Hartford hockey fanbase.
That silver lining, namely the AHL rivalry between the Providence Bruins and Connecticut Whale, may never have shined brighter or in a more prominent view than it is right now.
In the midst of an NHL lockout, the next-best league in North America presses on with one team brandishing Boston’s colors and nickname and another bearing the same colors and affectionate nickname of its predecessor.
This date is also hovering around the two-year anniversary of Connecticut’s abrupt, midseason switch from the Hartford Wolf Pack, the franchise’s original name from when it first came to fill the void in the fall of 1997.
Those two elements―the fact that this is the best quality of hockey presently available and the contesting clubs’ emblems and uniforms―should logically serve to intensify a feud that was appreciable enough to begin with.
The geographic aspect speaks for itself. It gives the AHL its own Battle of Southern New England to complement the Big East basketball grudge between Providence College and UConn.
One party caters to the capital of Rhode Island, the only New England state not to border any non-New England states or provinces.
The other represents the capital of Connecticut, the misfit New England state that, as implied earlier, blends Boston and New York fanfare.
One team hones the professional prospects for America’s oldest NHL franchise just north of the state border. The other functions as the farm club for the New York Rangers, another Original Six franchise that, like the Bruins, has undergone a recent revival in relevance.
With the lockout dragging on indefinitely, the two Gardens (TD and Madison Square) are as lacking in major league hockey as Hartford’s XL Center has been and most likely will continue to be. At the same time, the lockout means that Providence has the likes of Jordan Caron passing the time, while Connecticut has Chris Kreider.
Furthermore, as of this season, each team has one of legendary Boston blueliner Ray Bourque’s sons―Chris for Providence, Ryan for Connecticut. A host of former friends and foes from Boston College and Boston University, which have the quintessential college rivalry, are scattered around each roster as well.
Granted, this is not exactly the AHL’s most competitive card right now, but the old Bruins-Whalers rivalry did not always boast a pair of heavyweights. Neither was that always the case with the everlasting Original Six feuds of Bruins-Canadiens or Bruins-Rangers, but those matchups spark unconditional fan fervor nonetheless.
In its 15-plus years of existence, the AHL version of Boston-Hartford has sculpted enough of a history to match its NHL predecessor.
Two of Hartford’s eight Stanley Cup playoff appearances ended in seven- and six-game losses to the Bruins in 1990 and 1991, respectively. The P-Bruins have met the team formerly known as the Wolf Pack in four Calder Cup playoff rounds, claiming a sweep in 1999, losing in seven games in 2000 and winning a best-of-five in 2001 and a best-of-seven in 2007.
Providence-turned-Hartford defenseman Terry Virtue won a Cup with the Bruins in 1999, then scored in overtime in Game 7 to knock off his old friends and help Hartford press on to the 2000 title. The AHL’s playoff prize has not been back anywhere in New England since.
Virtue was hardly the first AHL entity to go from pleasing Providence to servicing the sworn enemy in Hartford. The Wolf Pack/Whale franchise originated as the Providence/Rhode Island Reds, who eventually bolted for Binghamton in 1977.
The Reds morphed into the Broome Dusters, then the Binghamton Whalers and ultimately the Binghamton Rangers. When their previous parent club left a hockey void in Hartford, their adoptive affiliate from Manhattan promptly decided to transplant its prospects to the Nutmeg State.
How about that? The two southernmost New England states each know the feeling of losing a pro hockey club. Rhode Islanders can indirectly begrudge Hartford for taking their old team, while Whalers fans can partially blame the Bruins for ushering their NHL franchise out of New England.
In turn, both fanbases can take it out on each other with their respective AHL teams.
If none of this makes the term "minor league" a misnomer, this author yearns to know what does.