Tuesday, September 20, 2011

With scrimmage, defending champion Bruins return more long-lost glory to Providence

Where was this friendly fixture all these years?

A break-in exhibition game pitting two rosters each with a dense, unadulterated mix of this year’s Boston Bruins and Providence Bruins? Played at the Dunkin Donuts Center?

It will never be clear as to why this concept couldn’t come to the forefront and be plugged into practice until just now. Why it was only after AHL president Dave Andrews announced his plan to whittle four games off the regular-season schedule, instilling an urge for the P-Bruins to supplement two lost dates at The Dunk.

The finished product of this take-and-give phenomenon came to fruition Tuesday night in the form of the Boston Bruins Black and White Game, a good five months after it was originally announced.

The sold-out scrimmage―featuring 25 current or one-time P-Bruins and 13 of the 2011 Stanley Cup ring-bearers―did not just end a full off-season’s worth of anticipation among the Providence fan base.

It also splashed an indefinite and inexplicable drought of visits from the parent club, which once had one extramural exhibition in Rhode Island’s premier sports venue on an annual basis. Even before the Baby Bs’ father met their mother.

Even when the Boston Bruins were still pulling up prospects from the Maine Mariners, they played an annual preseason game in Providence. That practice most naturally continued after the P-Bruins arrived in the family, but then mysteriously ceased sometime around the NHL lockout, give or take a year or two.

How long has it been since then? So long that almost no one can pinpoint the date of the last NHL scrimmage to take place in the Divine City.

You can scrap in every corner of the World Wide Web and find no conclusive record of it.

Instead, you must rely on such primitive tools as your own brain or any memorabilia you may have saved. E.g. a program from the night Ray Bourque’s jersey was retired with an article recounting a scrimmage with Montreal in the late 1980s.

In this author’s memory bank, there was time in 2001 when the P-Bruins engaged the late Albany River Rats in the afternoon before the parent clubs from Boston and New Jersey converged on the ice at The Dunk in a doubleheader. There may have been more after that, there may not have been.

Not that it matters anymore. Fittingly enough, within the same calendar year, the Bruins have completed their all-out return to relevance on the New England sports scene and replenished their appreciation for the unique Ocean State sector of their fan base.

It has been said as many times as Providence-turned-Boston broadcaster Dave Goucher’s “Get the Duck Boats ready!” call has been replayed, but it’s worth restating once more. The now-20-year alliance between Providence and Boston constitutes the longest ongoing partnership between and AHL and NHL team. And it’s not going anywhere.

Yet for a while, within the past decade to be precise, there has been a vague sense of disconnect.

Part of it owes to the end of the annual preseason game at the Civic Center/Dunk. Part of it is because the New England Sports Network once carried its cameras into the arena for handfuls of P-Bruins home games each year, but no more. Part of it is because regional icon Rene Rancourt (the natural vocalist for Tuesday’s game) stopped coming to Providence so that three grade-school choruses can sing three different patriotic songs.

This, however, could presage a U-turn back in the right direction. The Baby Bs arranged for this game, along with the Boston-Providence alumni game to be played in November, just as the parent club was delving into the first round against Montreal last spring.

From a sheer Providence publicity standpoint, that would have been enough treats for one sitting. But it didn’t hurt that Boston, with the help of seven Spoked-P alumni, proceeded to nab the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 39 years.

From there, the P-Bruins wasted no time combining these special events with their own regular-season slate, promoting the “Champions Pack” for ticket-seekers interested in a variety bundle. By underscoring their affiliation, which they have every right to do, they were practically utilizing a secondhand buzz not unlike the self-made kick that came with their 1992 advent and 1999 Calder Cup.

Now would be a sensible time to bring back one other missing element at The Dunk. There was a time when one half of the rink’s center-ice circle was occupied by the P-Bruins emblem, whereas the other one was filled with a Spoked-B. But the Boston logo on the ice eventually evaporated along with the 20 Boston logos that twirled around against another NHL team each September and the periodic NESN telecasts.

Restoring the latter is all but impossible, especially now that all non-national games are exclusively on NESN as opposed to half on WSBK. On the other hand, based on the reception of Tuesday night’s intramural bout, the Bruins have brought to Rhode Island something even better than a clash between half Boston/Providence Bruins and half Montreal Canadiens/Hamilton Bulldogs.

Etch both the local AHL and NHL team logos into the ice and you’re suddenly hitting an easy 2-for-3 in this great restoration. And while you’re at it, look into turning off the lights and flashing highlights of past-and-present P-Bruins stars, especially those who won the Cup last season, before each AHL game here.

Just like Boston last spring, Providence had a manifestly crowning moment Tuesday night. And like Boston going forward, Providence must now build upon that in 2011-12.