Hockey's Back In South Florida, As The Panthers Ready To Make Their Mark With A New Season
After years of uneventful to depressing seasons, the Florida Panthers are building a winning culture to revive fans’ faith in their local hockey team.
Ice water quickly turns to just water, which becomes lukewarm within a matter of minutes in the Florida heat. The Panthers hockey team has been rejected by nature in this same manner with a presence that started out solid, but quickly melted to mediocrity. With failed seasons that have even caused the team to become the first in history to miss the playoffs for nearly a decade, it’s reason to think hockey just simply doesn’t belong in South Florida. But with a revamped roster and visionary leadership, the team is on a mission to prove hockey has a place in the Sunshine State.
The Florida Panthers, historically relegated to the bench in popularity and fan appeal behind the Miami Dolphins, the Heat and even the Marlins, is gaining a significant and growing foothold in the hearts and minds of long-time hockey enthusiasts and those who are being introduced to the sport for the first time.
Hockey has recently acquired a major presence in South Florida as the Panthers have risen from the ashes to become one of the NHL’s premier and highly regarded teams during its successful 2015-16 season that resulted in the team’s championship in the Atlantic Division.
The sport itself is becoming chic—kids are asking parents to locate the nearest rinks, and where to buy the best sticks, pads and skates.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Florida meets ice
Blockbuster Video magnate and former Dolphins and Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga was awarded an NHL franchise for Miami in 1992. Big-time NHL names, such as the New York Islanders’ Bill Torrey and the Philadelphia Flyers’ Bobby Clarke, were hired to run the league’s newest expansion franchise.
The early returns were favorable. The 1993-94 team finished just two points below .500 and barely missed securing a final playoff spot in the East.
Just two years later, the Panthers became a hot item—locally and worldwide.
On the night of the 1995-96 opener, fan favorite Scott Mellanby struck and killed an unwelcome locker room guest: a large, adult rat. That night, Mellanby scored two goals and thus was born a nighty infusion of thousands of disposal rubber rats thrown on home ice by an enthusiastic fan base that couldn’t get enough of Florida’s newest pro team.
In fact, “rodent luck” was attributed by many as the reason the Panthers went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before being swept by the Colorado Avalanche in four games.
Nothing, though, was the same after the rat pack hysteria subsided.
Mediocrity set in, and losing became habit for the Panthers throughout the remainder of the ’90s and into the 21st century.
Players came and went through revolving doors. Some became NHL all-stars, such as Roberto Luongo, Tomáš Vokoun and Olli Jokinen, but the team itself kept missing the playoffs and the fans stayed home.
In 2009-10, the Panthers became the first NHL team in history to miss the playoffs for nine consecutive years.
Major changes became necessary.
The Panthers’ fortune turned around when Dale Tallon was hired in 2010 as the general manager. The team responded by winning its first ever Southeast Division title.
And last season, with team scoring leaders Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck, the Panthers finished atop the Atlantic Conference.
Being knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the New York Islanders in six games was disappointing, but it didn’t put a damper on the team’s high hopes entering this year’s campaign.
Recovering from the past
An aggressive off-season saw the Cats stockpile outstanding talent such as Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and James Reimer. Another Stanley Cup Finals appearance could soon become reality.
The challenge now facing the Florida Panthers organization will be to keep the fans streaming into the BB&T Center while at the same time promoting hockey and the team’s recent successes.
President and CEO Matthew Caldwell and his staff work year-round to make the Florida Panthers a household name throughout the Sunshine State.
“It’s amazing. It’s been a wild ride in a nontraditional hockey market,” Caldwell says. “We had a real tough fight in the beginning. Attendance was low, but things changed when new owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu took over in 2013. A real commitment to winning was developed.”
The greatest challenge has been altering a losing mindset for both the team and its fans after a decade of on-ice futility. Creating a new, positive culture in an area with a fan base so accustomed to keeping its distance from the Panthers was a large mountain to climb.
“[It’s] not easy when you lose for so long,” Caldwell says. “We had one playoff appearance in 10 years. You lose fans. People get frustrated with the brand. There was no clear path. A lot of free tickets were given out just to get fans in the stands.”
This year’s season
To stop the bleeding meant a firm commitment by ownership to bring in winners from other NHL clubs.
This also meant convincing free agents to pack up their skates and pads and relocate to South Florida, a vacation spot without a hockey legacy.
Bringing back goalie and fan favorite Roberto Luongo, and signing defenseman Aaron Ekblad, center Derek MacKenzie, LW Shawn Thornton and the iconic future Hall of Famer Jaromír Jágr created an ideal on-and-off-ice atmosphere.
“The key was mixing young guys with the veterans who could set the tone on the ice and in the locker room—to bring in winners who weren’t used to losing,” Caldwell says.
The strategy worked.
In 2014-15, the Panthers went from 66 to 91 points, a 25 point gain that almost landed the team a third playoff appearance.
Reilly Smith, a rising star with the Boston Bruins, was brought aboard and immediately relished the opportunity to play for the newly revamped and committed Panthers.
“I felt a positive atmosphere as soon I showed up at the rink,” says Smith, a Toronto native who had an outstanding 2016 playoff run, who became the first Panther to record three consecutive multi-point games.
“The winning attitude was evident, and you certainly can’t beat the sunshine and weather year-round,” he adds.
The lifeblood of a successful franchise year after year is keeping the fans in the stands. Recent season ticket renewals have come in the 90 percent range.
Bonnie Brent and Tad Yoder have been Panthers season ticket holders since 1993, which means they’ve renewed their seats for 23 years a mere seven rows behind the Panthers goal.
“The whole thing was so exciting to watch,” Brent says. “The skating and the speed of the game are awesome. And the players have been so welcoming to us.”
John Colombo, director of community relations, spends a great amount of time promoting and marketing hockey, and the Panthers in local neighborhoods.
Programs such as the Florida Panthers “Learn To Play” attract kids in the 4 to 8 age range who learn to skate within six weeks and keep all of their equipment for $100.
The Florida Panthers Foundation was created to establish an interest in the sport for kids, support veteran issues and raise awareness about the endangered panther.
Fundraisers, raffles, jerseys and memorabilia auctions highlight an active year-round event calendar.
Challenges remain for the Panthers organization—the hard work and the ownership’s commitment to winning remains the No. 1 priority.
“Our fans know we are trying to be competitive, but winning is the No. 1 goal to maintain interest in hockey and the Panthers,” Caldwell says.
The bottom line is that the Panthers are building a winning culture from the ground up.
“We want to see every kid wearing the Florida Panthers shield in the future,” Caldwell says.