As the host of Providence’s commencement exercises, the Dunkin Donuts Center functions as the de facto career launching pad for the school’s students on an annual basis in mid-May.
But last spring, Kyle MacKinnon arrived at the send-off site six weeks early and has since barely vacated the premises. In the process, he has been his graduating class of 2011′s most accomplished representative through their first year on the professional hockey platform.
MacKinnon is the latest of 22 Providence or Brown alumni to have graduated from one of the Divine City’s Division I college hockey programs and subsequently skated for the local AHL team, the Providence Bruins.
Some predecessors, such as ex-Friars player Drew Omicioli and Brown graduate Devin Timberlake, have transitioned between the two levels without leaving city limits but lasted no more than 10 games. Others, such as former Friars and P-Bruins captain Jay Leach, spent at least a full, one-year interim with another employer before coming back to Providence for a lengthier stay.
But MacKinnon has the distinction of going directly from the Skating Friars to the Spoked-P’s and, save for a five-day reassignment to the Bruins’ ECHL affiliate in early December, staying put for a full season.
“That was definitely a perk, coming back to the same city,” said the Walnut, Calif., native. “I had that comfort level of already being here.”
MacKinnon’s senior season with the Friars met a bittersweet ending when Providence won its season finale at Schneider Arena but fell one point out of the Hockey East playoff bracket. Within five days, having brooked three consecutive postseason no-shows, the program parted ways with head coach Tim Army.
But for MacKinnon, an undrafted free agent forward, another week passed before, in his own words, “the Providence Bruins came out of nowhere” to offer him a chance to garner potential employment and an extended stay in his college town.
With an amateur tryout valid for the balance of the AHL season, MacKinnon was promised nothing beyond practice time. But he willingly iced any spring break plans and began commuting from campus to downtown with his duffel bag on a city bus.
Two weeks of taxi skating ultimately made enough of an impression for then-Bruins skipper Rob Murray to dress MacKinnon for five of the six remaining regular season games.
Making his AHL debut against the Connecticut Whale at the Dunkin Donuts Center, 27 days after his last college contest, MacKinnon logged two shots on goal and threw a highlight-reel hit on opposing veteran defenseman Wade Redden. The hit, occurring with 8:07 remaining in the third period, forced a delay of game when a pane of glass, somehow still intact, popped out of position.
The following evening, in a road bout with the Worcester Sharks, he logged his first professional point in the form of an assist. He added two more points the following weekend, including the deciding goal in a victory over the Springfield Falcons.
The following week, MacKinnon was back at Schneider Arena to accept the Friars’ team MVP award, which he split with classmate Matt Germain. And five weeks after the P-Bruins closed up shop for the summer, he returned to the city’s hallmark venue to accept his degree in history.
Another six Providence men’s hockey players were on hand with their fellow graduates to listen for their names and approach the stage to shake hands with college president Rev. Brian Shanley. But only MacKinnon would reenter the same set of walls the next autumn to hear his name called by Bruins’ public address announcer Dave Zibelli.
That was as early as Sept. 20, when MacKinnon suited up for the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins’ intrasquad scrimmage, an event that the rookie downplayed with conventional hockey humility.
“Not every player gets a chance to play in [professional] games at the end of their senior season, so that was great,” he said. “And coming into this season, I thought things were moving in the right direction.
“Just getting a chance to play at the AHL level right out of college has been something I’m very appreciative of.”
Out of the Friars’ seven graduates from the 2010-11 season, MacKinnon is the only one to have seen regular action in the AHL as a first-year pro. Five of his former classmates have been mainstays in the ECHL, two of them occasionally earning a call-up to the AHL level.
While his fellow 2011 alumni have combined for 20 AHL games, MacKinnon put in 67 out of a possible 76 appearances for the P-Bruins this season, scoring 14 goals and 21 points. He was also one of only four team members to accumulate a positive plus/minus rating while spending the majority of the season in Providence.
MacKinnon expressed no desire to single himself out as a jutting representative of his Providence class, even if he has consistently played at a higher level and even if he is still being watched by Friars-Bruins crossover fans. Rather, he focuses on the pleasure of having the majority of his fellow Friars players extend their careers after slogging through what was arguably the greatest period of hardship in program history.
“Obviously, it’s nice for me, being in a place I’m familiar with,” he said. “But I’ve definitely kept in touch with all my classmates that are playing professionally in other states and they seem to be enjoying it.
“It’s pretty awesome that, even though we didn’t have the success that we wanted to have in our college careers, pretty much all of our senior class has gone on to play professionally. It’s great for our class and our school.”
Meanwhile, under first-year skipper Nate Leaman, the 2011-12 Friars promptly returned to the Hockey East playoff picture, claiming the seventh seed in the conference tournament. They upset Massachusetts-Lowell in the best-of-three quarterfinals before being zapped by the eventual conference and national champions from Boston College.
MacKinnon, who made a point of catching up with the returning players as he settled back in for his first AHL training camp, was on hand for three rare weeknight games on campus. And whether he remains in the neighborhood next season, he will eagerly root for his alma mater’s exponential regrowth.
“From talking to the returning players that I was close to, they really like Coach Leaman and his approach to practice and preparation for games, and I think it’s showing,” MacKinnon said. “I know they were kind of in the middle of the pack this year. But the talent he has brought just in this one year, some of the freshmen they have, has had some real success this year. So he’s really been putting in good work recruiting and I think that’s really going to show in the next few years.”