Wednesday, February 8, 2012

All-Star Hosting Rights Underscore P-Bruins’ Durability, Fan Base’s Leadership

Providence is to the AHL what Toronto is the NHL. No playoff appearances in recent memory, yet consistently one of the league’s best performers at the turnstiles.

The Providence Bruins are on the cusp of rounding out two full decades of existence, in which time they have never finished outside of the top 10 on the AHL’s attendance leaderboard. They may or may not salvage a surprise playoff passport in the forthcoming homestretch, but a third consecutive finish among the league’s five best draws is most likely.

Of the still-living franchises, only the Hershey Bears, Chicago Wolves, Grand Rapids Griffins and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have been comparably dynastic at the gate in recent memory. Like Providence, all four have finished within the top 10 every season and placed among the top five on multiple occasions since 2002-03. And all five are on pace to be among the 10 best draws in 2011-12.

And whether it was in the AHL or IHL, each of the aforementioned have hosted at least one All-Star Game more recently than the Baby Bs. Grand Rapids (1997 and 2004) and Hershey (1996 and 2011) have held two apiece in the interim, as have the Portland Pirates.

So while there are 16 other cities that have not seen a midseason classic since the P-Bruins helped to bring it back in 1995, there is no disgrace giving the game a second shift next season, which was confirmed in Wednesday’s press conference.

One week after playing its special exhibition on a thoroughly neutral pond in Atlantic City, the AHL was apt to abandon that experiment effective in 2013.

Wednesday’s announcement indicates league president Dave Andrews and his board of governors want to plant their All-Star magnet in an established, healthy market. They want to let the crowds watching the Eastern Conference combat the Western Conference to be constituted by a nucleus of an exemplary fan base supplemented by following tourists.

Andrews said it himself on Wednesday that “the Providence Bruins organization has been a cornerstone for the last two decades.”

The third-longest-tenured franchise in the circuit, the P-Bruins had their leanest year at the gate in 2007-08, when they placed 10th out of 29 teams with a nightly median audience of 6,107. And that was in spite of that team’s plow to the summit of the AHL standings and threat to eclipse the records set by their otherworldly predecessors from 1998-99.

Since that season, the results between the boards have withered. Yet the Bruins have ascended the attendance leaderboard with final average figures growing from 6,343 to 6,770 to 7,324.

An egregious start and futile homestretch cramming session en route to a second straight playoff no-show failed to curb fan support last season. On the contrary, Providence had its best finish on the attendance list (fourth) since 2003-04 and drew its greatest outpouring of spectators since 2004-05.

With that kind of upswing under these sorts of circumstances after that business nadir of four years ago, the P-Bruins and the Dunkin Donuts Center are the right label and right facility to draw attention to the AHL. Those flocking in from other markets or taking in a rare minor-league hockey television fix next Jan. 28 are all the more likely to absorb and transmit the host city’s passion for pucks.

Barring new trends between now and then, some of the most logical candidates for the 2014 All-Star Game include Lake Erie (Cleveland), Milwaukee, Peoria and San Antonio.

Either that or perhaps the peerless multitude of neighboring fan bases will follow the Divine City’s lead and ultimately prove itself worthy of providing future hospitality. Springfield, another classic AHL city, has seen its yearly attendance hover consistently within the 3,000-range since 2003-04 while the two Connecticut clubs have repeatedly drawn 5,000 or fewer for five-plus years.

Those cities and/or others could improve upon that by feeding off what stems from the 2013 AHL All-Star Classic at the Dunk.

It worked that way in 1995 when it was the Providence Civic Center. “Our league is a much different league than it was 18 years ago. Our thanks go to Providence for helping us kick that off and re-define who we were,” Andrews said Wednesday.

There is no reason to think it won’t work that way again.