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Beloved Aaron Downey to energize Civic Center tonight

Journal Sports Writer

PROVIDENCE -- One week before the Christmas holiday break, the favorite son returns home to the Civic Center tonight. And his hockey family, who will fill the downtown arena, can't wait to see him.

It certainly will be an unusual hockey evening in Providence when former P-Bruin Aaron Downey, adored by Providence fans for three years, skates onto the Civic Center ice for the first time wearing . . . gulp, the blue, gold and white colors of the AHL's newest entry, the Norfolk Admirals.

Enemy uniform or not, the cheers and whistles will be deafening as the Providence fans honor the most popular player ever to wear a P-Bruins uniform.

When Downey played here, he bled black and gold. He was the enforcer. He was the fighter. He was the charmer. He was every player for every fan. A player who never was too busy to sign an autograph. Downey's energy and love for hockey always seemed to trigger the needed emotion in the Providence locker room as well as on the ice.

Providence winger Peter Ferraro once said of Downey, "He is a phenomenal leader for us because of the emotion he brings to the team and his tremendous drive to win."

Downey realizes he is in for a high-energy night in Providence.

"I know I'm going to have to keep my emotions in check," said Downey, who will face his old team for the first time with the added honor of having been chosen by his new teammates as captain of the first-year Admirals.

"My heart will always be in Providence because of the great fans, the great ownership there, and because it is such a great hockey town. I've been thinking about this all week."

Downey, who left the Boston organization last summer and accepted a better two-year offer from the Chicago Blackhawks, says he will try to treat tonight's game as just another contest.

"I'll try to lay out somebody. I won't be afraid to body-check anybody," said Downey, who comes into tonight's game with two goals and 11 assists and 127 minutes in penalties. "I won't try to do anything different, just go with the flow. But I know it will almost feel like a home game for me. Norfolk is a good place to play, and the fans come out, but it's not like Providence. Providence is a hockey town. I loved playing here."

Maybe after tonight's game and after future visits here, the love-fest between Downey and P-Bruins fans will lessen. But, then again, it might not. Downey was that unique a player for the fans in this town.

What made him so appealing was how genuine he was. Downey was not a high-profile player. In his three years here, he scored only 21 goals. Instead, it was his incredible willingness to give his all each time he stepped onto the ice that made him a fan favorite. He gave a 100-percent effort on the ice and in the community.

"I spoke with him this week, and he basically told me it was going to be difficult for him to come in here and play," said Ferraro, who teamed with Downey for two seasons, one of which resulted in a Calder Cup. "He established an unbelievable reputation here. It was difficult for him to leave, but it was a better opportunity for him with Chicago. He was the type of player -- whether he was playing well or not, or whether he was playing a lot or not playing a lot -- who came into the locker room every day with a smile on his face. He added energy and made a long season very, very short. The crowd is going to love to see him because they love him and they still want him here."

Ferraro said it will be difficult to play against him because of the special relationship Downey had with many of the current Providence players.

"He was such a good guy to everyone. We still look at him as one of our teammates. I know I do," Ferraro said. "But we all know this is a business and these things happen, and if I was able to play against my brother [last week], then I can play against any friend any day."

Another former teammate of Downey's is Providence defenseman Brandon Smith. He knows that when Downey was with Providence, opposing defensemen feared Downey's thunderous body checks, especially when he was forechecking deep inside an opponent's zone.

"It will be different seeing him on the other side. We'll just try and hold him up and stay away from those big hits that me makes. He'll be fired up, so it should be a fun game," Smith said.

Providence coach Bill Armstrong hopes his club doesn't get caught up in the excitement of Downey's return.

"From a coaching perspective, I don't really care that he's back. We're going to play Providence Bruins hockey," Armstrong said. "Guys can't be worrying about that. Besides, things like this happen all the time. There is always changeover in the minor leagues."

As far as the game is concerned, Ferraro put things in perspective. "We'll welcome him back, but, obviously, we want to get a win out of this game, too."

When he left the area late last summer for the Blackhawks' training camp, Downey said he hoped to be playing in Chicago so he wouldn't have to return to Providence wearing another uniform.

"If that happens, then it will be a sad day for me," Downey had said at the time. Well, that day has arrived for the favorite son and his Providence family.

2000 The Providence Journal Company

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