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Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Divine Season: Ten Years Later

The then and now of the 1998-99 Providence Bruins

To this day, they remain the statistical sovereigns of the American Hockey League history books. They were quick to kick sound ice chips over a toe-curling 19-54-7 season by consuming a record 56 regular season wins and 120 points. They made the tone radically clear when they scored 10 goals within the first 20 minutes in an eventual 14-2 blowaway of the Syracuse Crunch in November and a month later whistled through a 16-game unbeaten tear.

And a full decade ago tonight, the 1998-99 Providence Bruins put the Sharpie-strong stamp on their run, securing the Calder Cup championship with a 5-1 Game 5 triumph over the Rochester Americans. Ocean State hockey devotees hardly had time to thank Saint Peter Laviolette for reviving the seven-year-old franchise’s viability, and now they were reveling in the city’s first AHL crown since the hardly-forgotten Reds snagged their last banner in 1956.

Not unlike the legacy of the Reds, that of the gold-fingered installment of the P-Bruins is infallibly moth resistant. To signify that, here is a highlight packet of each player and coach credited with a share in the title:

Peter Laviolette, head coach- Who but the old Captain Bruin and Captain America (1994 Lillehammer Olympics), native to Franklin, Mass. a mere 18 miles away and with four rich playing seasons here, to correct the 1997-98 hodgepodge left by Tom McVie? Laviolette, two years removed from the dual role of player/assistant coach under Bob Francis and one year removed from his first ECHL gig in Wheeling, wasted no time winning back the fans. The results –including his personal distinction as AHL Coach of the Year- speak for themselves. He arguably should have repeated that honor the way he handled the 1999-2000 season, which was characterized by constant injury and transaction but still culminated in a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals. In any case, Laviolette did effectively earn the honor of an assistant job in Boston, followed by six-plus seasons between the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes. Oh yeah, there was also 2006, where he called the shots for Team USA in Torino then met Lord Stanley with the Canes.

Bill Armstrong, assistant coach- Bet you don’t remember that Armstrong, who played two stints with the Spoked-Ps from 1993-95 and again from 1996-98 slowly decelerated his career with six appearances early in the 98-99 run. Once settled into a full-time tutoring role, he remained Laviolette’s sidekick until the latter’s promotion, and filled the vacancy for the next two seasons. It didn’t transpire so gloriously. Armstrong was nudged out the door in 2002 after Providence faltered in the first round.

Elias Abrahamsson, D- The second-year enforcer put in a mere four appearances in the post-season, but had solidified recognition chiefly for the 184 penalty minutes he consumed over 75 regular season contests. Returning for portions of the next two seasons (a split stint sandwiching time in Hamilton with Edmonton’s farm team), Abrahamsson proceeded to finish his brief hockey trek in Sweden from 2002-04.

Johnathan Aitken, D- A 1996 first-round NHL draftee fresh from the major junior ranks at the start of the season, the budding blueliner’s regular season scoring transcript of 2-9-11 ironically matched that of the aforementioned Abrahamsson. He would see action in 13 playoff games and spend the bulk of the following year here, coupled with a sprinkling of three games in Boston, before he was turned loose. Aitken would ultimately wrap things up in Austria over the 2006-07 season.

Steve Bancroft, D- Acquired from the Calgary organization early on in the year, Bancroft had already seen action with 12 AHL and IHL teams (including the Maine Mariners, who would morph into the P-Bruins in 1992) in a span of eight pro seasons. His one-year cup of coffee at the future Dunkin Donuts Center was complete with 62 regular season games, a 7-34-41 scoring log, and 15 playoff games. From there, he hastily went on to slurp ice time with eight more pro teams, culminating with the now-defunct Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights in 2006.

Bob Beers, D- No loyal followers could forget that this was Beers’ first of two seasons as a full-time color analyst with WBZ and part-time player in Providence. After the parent club was abolished from the Stanley Cup bracket by Buffalo, Beers was integrated into five postseason games, including the Cup clincher. A year later, he partook in all 14 playoff games as the Bruins went back to the conference final in his final gig as a player. It would also be the last AHL run ever called by Beers’ soon-to-be radio batterymate, Dave Goucher. The two linked up when Goucher got his break in 2000 and have been a Ninth Floor fixture ever since.

Jeremy Brown, RW- The mid-season acquisition appeared in all 19 playoff contests, pitching in six goals and seven helpers, and defied the laws of minor league nature by staying strictly put for each of the next two seasons. And times were so different that in 2000-01, he contributed a regular first-person diary, “View From The Ice,” to the Providence Journal. But by the next season, he had played 17 games apiece with ECHL Wheeling and AHL Saint John before hanging up the blades.

David Brumby, G- Granted, he was credited with but three appearances in a span of two seasons, and apart from 17 games with the IHL’s Cleveland Lumberjacks, all his post-Providence mileage came from a protracted tour through the ECHL, but mere availability on the part of any backup goalie is an invaluable contribution.

Dan Ceman, C- Three regular season games and two playoff appearances barely cut it for Cup credit. Although, for him individually, Game 2 of the first-round series versus Worcester was effectively Ceman’s last day of work on North American ice. He has split the last 10 seasons with an array of teams in Great Britain, France, and most recently Denmark.

Aaron Downey, RW- The Killer Carlson of the club played all 19 post-season games and just noticeably toned down his penalty minute rate in the process. His lone assist in the span happened to be on Joel Prpic’s clincher in Game 5 of the Finals. Downey would stick around for another year, charged up reckonable NHL seasoning with four different organizations, and then make a pleasant surprise return in 2006-07. He was last seen with Detroit’s feeder club in Grand Rapids this spring.

Peter Ferraro, RW- Primarily an NHLer once acquired by Boston, Ferraro slugged home 25 points in a mere 16 regular season games, then churned furiously through the full length of the post-season with a 9-12-21 transcript, good for dibs on the Jack Butterfield Trophy as playoff MVP. Over two more years under Black and Gold auspices, he similarly anchored two return trips to the AHL Eastern Conference Finals. Eight years and nine different teams later, he has just wrapped up his second full season with the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers. For a portion of last season in Sin City, he teamed up with freshly-graduated Friars’ goalie Tyler Sims.

Jay Henderson, LW- After a full campaign with the WHL’s Edmonton Ice, Henderson arrived amid the carnage of 1997-98 with enough time to partake in 11 games. He would subsequently see action in 55 regular season and two playoff bouts to share championship credit and could hardly stay away afterward. He remained Boston property until 2003, saw slivers of action in Hartford, Houston, and Milwaukee, then came back here for a good 72 regular season and 17 playoff appearances in 2004-05. Since then, he has taken his ambitions overseas to Germany and Austria.

John Grahame, G- The Junior Spokespeople’s most accomplished netminder, complete with a 37-9-1 regular season transcript and 15-4 showing in the gold-fingered playoff run, hung about for an additional two seasons, chiefly backstopping two return trips to the Eastern Conference Final and taking what he could get in Boston whilst waiting for a permanent promotion. Not long after he got that, though, the son of Ron Grahame was dealt to Tampa Bay, where he would reunite with former Providence teammate Andre Roy (from 1997-98) and serve as Nikolai Khabibulin’s stand-in en route to the 2004 Stanley Cup.

Steven King, RW- The East Greenwich native and 1991 Brown University alumnus came late in the year from, of all adversaries, the Western Conference titans from Rochester. All went according to plan when the AHL’s unmistakable heavyweights locked twigs for the Cup, and King wasted no time making a telling difference in the series. He would insert two goals in a 4-2 Game 1 triumph, snag a goal-assist value pack as part of a 6-0 victory in Game 2, and posted the triple-OT clincher in Game 3.

Antti Laaksonen, LW- The 1997 Boston draftee, who turned pro months after his selection, pitched in nine points in 19 playoff appearances, equated that output during the 2000 spring, then took off upon being claimed by the Minnesota Wild in the expansion draft. An iron man who played all 82 games over his first three Minnesota seasons, Laaksonen ultimately receded back to the minors in 2006-07 and was last season playing in his native Finland.

Cameron Mann, RW- A Game 2 hat trick in the final series permeated Mann’s celestial stature on the team, as if 34 games (including one playoff) in Boston didn’t do that enough. By the time he was dealt to the Dallas organization, Mann had seen considerable action at both levels in four seasons (1997-01) with the Bruins. His grand totals: 90 games, 14 goals, 10 assists in Boston; 182 regular season games, 73 goals, 90 assists in Providence; 22 playoff games, 13 goals, and 14 assists with Providence.

Marquis Mathieu, C- Native to, of all places, Hartford, Mathieu had more than secured the reverence of Rhode Island puckheads by the time he spotted a goal and assist in Game 5 of the Finals, upping his postseason output to 4-7-11 in 19 games. Released after 2001, he nearly got close with Calder once more in 2004, when his Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins fell short to the Milwaukee Admirals. In the five years since then, he has played primarily in the Quebec-based Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (translation: North American Hockey League).

Roger Maxwell, RW- Maxwell, who left too soon to indulge in an eventual title with the Hershey Bears in 1997, had better timing in his third pro season, which he initially spent with Louisiana IceGators of the ECHL. Once fastened to the Providence roster, he earned credit for seven playoff games. More recently, much like the aforementioned Mathieu, he has been fastened to the LNAH over the last five seasons.

Jason McBain, D- The ex-Hartford Whaler and Springfield Falcon returned to the AHL after nearly two full years in the IHL in time to play the length of the post-season, contributing a goal and eight assists along the way. That was strangely the last the Bruins saw of him as he was back in the “I” the subsequent autumn. He retired in 2005 as a Las Vegas Wrangler.

Eric Nickulas, RW- Two years removed from the University of New Hampshire when obtained by Boston, Nickulas played in all but one post-season game in 1999 and tied Randy Robitaille for second on the team scoring charts with 20 points. His 12 assists knotted him with Ferraro and Terry Virtue for the lead under that heading. For each of the next two seasons, Nickulas again pitched in as the P-Bruins went deep and savored slivers of action in Boston. He would return to the organization in 2005-06 after a detour through St. Louis and Chicago, though he has since settled in Germany.

Joel Prpic, C- Forty percent of Prpic’s 10 playoff points happened to fall in the Finals, including three on Clinch Night, game clincher, two insurance helpers, and all. Prpic stuck around for the bulk of the title defense season, but didn’t have much going for him afterwards. By 2003, after a one-year gig in Japan, he had packed it in.

Randy Robitaille, C- The league’s regular season MVP with 102 points, five of which were goals in that ice-shattering 14-2 blowaway of the Syracuse Crunch one night before Thanksgiving, Robitaille hardly let up in the playoffs, charging up a good 20 points

Andre Savage, C- Fresh from another black-and-gold society at Michigan Tech University, Savage was another one of those who propped up the three golden springs between 1999 and 2001. He was a distant #2 in regular season scoring behind Robitaille with 69 points, though he saw action in only five postseason contests. For the next two years, he enjoyed 49 NHL bouts and 31 more Calder Cup games. Not to mention, Savage momentarily returned in 2003-04 as part of a deal with Philadelphia and merely topped the regular season scoring charts with 46 points in 63 games.

Brandon Smith, D- Yet another player who was here precisely from beginning to end of those three exhilarating ventures to the AHL’s final four. The puckslinging defenseman pitched in 16 goals and 62 points over the regular season and followed up with 10 playoff points. Since his departure in 2001, Smith has seen action in Cleveland, Bridgeport, Rochester, and most recently spent the past two seasons with the Berlin Polar Bears.

John Spoltore, C- A latter day Mel “Sudden Death” Hill? Pretty much. Spoltore, who had played the entire regular season with Maxwell’s IceGators, charged up two multi-goal games in the second round versus Hartford. In both cases, Goal #2 put an instant end to a 5-4 OT victory. And that was his legacy here. Spoltore lasted five games in the turbulent 1999-2000 campaign and proceeded to migrate through Springfield, San Diego, parts of Germany, and finally the United League, from which he retired in 2007.

Dennis Vaske, D- Vaske’s penultimate career point was a helper on King’s triple-OT strike in Game 3. And fittingly, the captain collaborated with Prpic to set up Mann’s empty netter with but 38 ticks to wait out before the corks could come off. The clinching game would effectively be it for Vaske, who spent but one savory season with the Bruins after devoting the preceding eight years of his pro career to the New York Islanders.

Terry Virtue, D- Unfortunately, this productive point patroller, who had just come the preceding autumn after spending all of the previous four seasons with rival Worcester, is better remembered here for an infamous feat in 2000. Swapped to the Rangers after the title was clinched, Virtue would insert the sudden death decider for Hartford in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, precisely two weeks before he indulged in another title with the Wolf Pack. That’s as may be, he did pitch in an invaluable 14 points over 17 games for the 1999 champions. Nothing can revoke that.

Landon Wilson, RW- To paraphrase Billy Joel, he didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the Black and Gold Machine had been churning (i.e. November 1998). Nevertheless, Wilson did set the overwhelming tone on Clinch Night, spawning a 1-0 lead five seconds into a power play at 5:48 of the opening frame. He would be one of 10 Bruins with a point to speak of that evening and cement his 1999 post-season transcript at 11 games, seven goals, and eight points. Technically the longest-tenured Baby B at the time, having been acquired from the Colorado system on November 22, 1996, Wilson went elsewhere after the 2000 run. But having played 27 games in Dallas this past season, he is one of the few who can still be seen in action on this continent.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

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