Can South Florida Ever Be A Hockey Town? This Panthers Executive Is Trying To Make It Happen
Florida Panthers Executive Chairman Peter Luukko has made it his mission to rebuild and rebrand the team, turning untraditional South Florida into a burgeoning hockey town.
Peter Luukko flew from Philadelphia to Fort Lauderdale with one garment bag.
When he realized he might be staying a few more days than expected, he went to Sawgrass Mills Mall. There, he got his first taste of South Florida: A man came into the Hugo Boss store with a suitcase and bought an entire rack of suits.
“My jaw dropped,” he remembers.
Now, as the executive chairman of the Florida Panthers, Luukko chalks up that experience to one of those quirky South Florida moments. Plus, he's familiar with the throng of tourists who flock to the mall daily since his executive office at the BB&T Center in Sunrise is just steps away.
Still, it's clear that despite the many distractions and attractions in South Florida, Luukko came to Broward County for one reason only: hockey.
Since signing on with the Panthers in February 2015, he's publicized his mission to elevate the team to a Philadelphia Flyers-like franchise—where he worked for more than 25 years before resigning in 2013. And in doing so, he'd like to turn an untraditional hockey market such as South Florida into a passionate hockey town.
He aims to do this by building a young but solid team; increasing the fan base and attendance at games; and improving the business operations of the arena. With many of those goals already underway, he foresees that the Panthers will compete for the Stanley Cup finals at least once, if not multiple times, in the next seven to 10 years.
“We're basically saying, ‘Come grow with us,'” he says. “On the way up is the most exciting time.”
Luukko admits that he never had intentions to work for another NHL team. The longtime Flyers president resigned from the Philly franchise to spend more time with his family—his two sons both play hockey (Nick with the Philadelphia Flyers organization and Max with USPHL junior league) while his daughter, Dana, attends Temple University. It was also the right time for him to cash out on his business with Comcast Spectacor, which manages arenas and stadiums throughout the country.
That was his thinking until Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL, encouraged Luukko to meet with Panthers owner Vincent Viola. “We really hit it off,” Luukko says of Viola. “He's a blue-collar guy from Brooklyn. I'm a blue-collar guy from Worcester [Massachusetts.]” Within 20 minutes, Luukko had a job offer.
A self-proclaimed “decisions guy,” Luukko made it a point to show he was committed and invested in the team. He bought a condo on Las Olas, and then immediately started rebranding the team and rebuilding the operations (especially the ticket sales force).
His message is that of a young, fast team that's surrounded by proven veterans. “When you show the fans the plan, when you communicate, when you're honest with them, they're with you,” he says. Plus, he adds: “The culture of hockey is one of selflessness. That's attractive to fans.”
Other notable Panthers successes include re-signing legendary veteran Jaromír Jágr (“It showed that we were a buyer, not a seller,” Luukko says.); capitalizing on the momentum from the Tampa Bay Lightning's run in last year's Stanley Cup finals (“I'd like to think we're right behind them,” he says.); and hosting the NHL draft at the BB&T Center this past summer (“It kept us relevant,” he says.). The team also won a major victory when, in December, the Broward County Commission agreed to give it $86 million in public funds.
So will these steps add up to a Stanley Cup run? Luukko sure seems to think so. At press time in early December, the Panthers were 13-11—“right there in the hunt” for a playoff spot.
“But that's the great thing about sports,” Luukko says. “You don't know the outcome.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Worcester, Massachusetts.