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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Personal Column

Many changes, a few not-so-minor constants

As a journalist-in-training, I literally cannot tell a lie. And so, I shall admit up front that my night out at the Dunkin Donuts Center for the Providence Bruins’ 3-1 triumph over the Manchester Monarchs yesterday evening fulfilled one of the most prominent, patent items on my checklist as a Providence College student.

Those who have checked out this publication since its younger days may recall another special diary-esque entry that recounted my first venture to a PC men’s basketball game. Just consider this “Dunkin Nostalgia: Part II,” or better yet “The Climax of the Quest” after a handful of preludes with the Dunkin Dominicans and the Friar Fanatics.

Not to devalue those experiences–especially considering the fact that the only game I took in this year happened to be the fĂȘted Pittsburgh upset- but I simply operate under a puck-centric partiality. Always have, always will.

Plus, I had never attended any major hoops events of any sort in my younger years on this coast, so it’s the P-Bruins and the P-Bruins alone that could team up with my sporting spirit and kindle a Rip van Winkle/William Wordsworth type of revelation.

Look, you just have to have paved the same sort of eccentric backstory I have in order to understand the resultant eccentricities to my personality, okay? By the time I had enrolled here, it had already been a full decade since I was grudgingly removed from Rhode Island and the Spoked Ps had conducted an even 400 regular season home games plus umpteen stirring playoff bouts (apparently something big happened on or around the night of June 13, 1999) in my absence.

And all last year, it was theoretically within my reach once more. The puck was loose in a thirsty scrum on the porch of the net. But other commitments –chiefly those specific to Friars’ beat reportage- bought the goalie time to smother it and summon a whistle.

Now I sort of know what it’s like to be on a team that sculpts a Cyclopean regular season transcript, only to be zapped from the playoffs in a premature stage. Missed opportunities like that make for a summer’s worth of seemingly irredeemable itches.

And for the first 35 out of 40 home dates this season, the exact same virtual defense was doing the exact same impeccable job. But last night, I caught my break and –with an assist to a few new friends who agreed to tag along- splashed the nearly 12-year-old drought.

With such a gaping passage of time, nearly every detail was bound to be different. Yet it still came together and hit with a somewhat baffling force.

Yes, most of these altered aspects were understood in advance: the very name of the arena, the personnel laboring at ice level, the modernized Jumbotron.

Beneath that, though, there’s so much more: the arena’s playlist collection was less diverse in the former days, so it was always the Black Box’s “Strike It Up” escorting the players to the ice for every period. Last night, it was the regionally contagious “Sweet Caroline” in one instance and “Crazy Train” another.

There was a time when there was no such luxury as a video board to present the action “As Seen on TV” style over center ice, so it was just the logo perched over the main dot, barring any significant developments in the game. In the riveting event of a Bruins goal –I still fondly recall- crudely but amusingly animated graphics were flashed concomitant with a wailing siren to acknowledge it.

The previous home game I attended (May 9, 1997) was broadcast on WPRO –one of this city’s crispest, most identifiable radio stations- by Dave Goucher –now in his ninth year as the radio voice in Boston. That game was also delivered to a NESN TV audience with Tom Caron and Bob Norton in the booth. And at the next daybreak, there sat a lush recap in the Providence Journal.

The game-winning goal scorer was Landon Wilson –who sealed a 2-1 triumph of the Springfield Falcons that sequentially matched “The Hockey Song” (home team falls behind in the first, ties in the second, wins in the third) and then stuck around long enough to open the scoring in the Cup-clinching game two years later. Wilson was last seen with Dallas Stars before a demotion to the “A” this season.

The Falcons’ roster included a fan favorite enforcer named Rob Murray, who is now obliged to discipline these very Bruins as their head coach.

The goaltending card for that evening was a long-forgotten Boston University alumnus named Derek Herlofsky for the victorious home boys against established NHLer Manny Legace, then just whetting his blades with Springfield, who promptly rebounded from a 2-1 loss the next night to claim Game 5 of the New England Division Finals and expel the Bruins from the 1997 Calder Cup Playoffs.

That would effectively end the tenure of a second-year head coach, Bob Francis. He would be pulled up to the Hub to serve as one of Pat Burns’ sidekicks and later won a Jack Adams Award with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2002. (Like Herlofsky, though, he hasn’t done much to lure the limelight lately).

All of those elements have departed –for better, worse, or no particular effect. But to act on a concept instilled in my philosophy class, at least one element has to have stayed the same through this protracted process of inevitable change.

Truth be told, that specimen of sameness was just a little harder to pinpoint than I thought it would be. But, hey, it was still that same glimmering black-and-gold Spoked P beaming up at all the onlookers, was it not? And I safely assume it has been all this time.

Which evokes one more important past/present contrast: the P-Bruins are in their 17th season of existence, yet have now long outlived all but two of their 28 AHL cohabitants. Only the Hershey Bears (77 seasons) and Rochester Americans (53) have been more durable.

Think about that. While other markets of all sizes have constantly gained, lost, and/or regained a reasonably accessible hockey team, the Baby Bs have gone right along slaking sport-hungry Rhode Islanders every winter.

And that hunger is still genuinely strong and healthy, for it sure looked and felt like last night’s reported attendance of 7,759 actually reflected both the box office and the turnstiles. You don’t see that everywhere.

But I saw it downtown last night. Scratch that. I partook in it…again…finally.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

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