Florida Panthers owner and proud Army veteran Vincent J. Viola is spending tens of millions of dollars to renovate the venerable War Memorial Auditorium in Holiday Park – while making the spacious city park even cooler. Next to the auditorium, the billionaire owner of the National Hockey League team is also building two ice rinks, one for community use and one where his Panthers will practice. Whether the NHL team might also play its home games in eastern Fort Lauderdale someday, instead of western Broward County, remains to be seen.
“The Panthers organization is still entertaining ideas about moving the sports team east, vacating the arena out in Sunrise and trying to find a space for an arena here in eastern Fort Lauderdale,” said Mayor Dean Trantalis in an Oct. 9 interview. The Fort Lauderdale mayor said the NHL team’s decision to practice in city-owned Holiday Park is part of an effort to build the sport’s fan base in eastern Broward. “They thought this would be a good first step to bring the ice hockey culture to Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Pompano,” Trantalis said. “They’re bringing that culture to generate interest in the sport as well as providing a community service, a separate ice rink just for public use.”
The two NHL regulation-size ice rinks set to open at Holiday Park are the centerpiece of the hospital-branded Baptist Health IcePlex. It is a sprawling, silver-colored complex adjacent to War Memorial, designed for sit-down dining at a restaurant on the second floor and shopping on the first floor. A ground-floor pro shop will stock such retail goods as Panthers jerseys and hockey gear. The IcePlex is replacing the Florida Panthers’ former three-rink practice facility in Coral Springs, called the IceDen, which the Panthers will continue to operate as a youth hockey center.
Construction of the IcePlex is closer to completion than renovation of War Memorial Auditorium, so the overall project is expected to finish in phases. “We actually have a temporary certificate of occupancy [from the city] for the hockey operations part of the IcePlex,” Florida Panthers president and chief executive officer Matthew Caldwell said in an Oct. 5 interview. The War Memorial makeover will take longer to open to the public. “That part of the project started later, and renovation always takes longer, so that’ll be later in 2024,” he said.
A public-private partnership between the Panthers organization and the Fort Lauderdale city government has propelled the development of the ice-rink center and the renovation of War Memorial Auditorium, which originally opened in 1950. Four years ago, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission approved a 50-year ground lease, at a lease rate of $1 per year, allowing the Panthers to develop the ice-rink center next to War Memorial, while rehabbing the auditorium at 800 NE Eighth St. on behalf of the city. War Memorial Benefit Corp., a company controlled by Viola, the Florida Panthers owner, is funding the Holiday Park project, Caldwell said. “There’s a construction loan, but he’s putting in a lot of the equity,” the Panthers’ president and CEO said. “All that equity is coming from our owner.”
The total cost of the project, initially estimated at $65 million, ultimately may rise as high as $75 million, Caldwell said. Construction materials and labor costs have jumped since the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. Despite a groundbreaking ceremony for the Holiday Park project in May 2021, the pandemic also suspended work on the project, as well as hockey games and other public events at the Panthers’ home arena in Sunrise. “It definitely slowed things down for us on the construction side,” Caldwell said.
But the goal is now in sight. By January, the Florida Panthers planned to move hockey operations to the Baptist Health IcePlex, which will have public seating for as many as 1,000 spectators to watch players as they train and practice there. “We have a lot of players who live in Fort Lauderdale, so it will be convenient for them,” Caldwell said. “A first-class facility where the teams train is important. It helps with free agency. It helps with keeping some of your star players.”
The second phase in the completion of the Holiday Park project will be the opening of the community ice rink at the Baptist Health IcePlex for youth sports and public skating. One sheet of ice will be dedicated to community use, and whenever the Florida Panthers are not using the other sheet, it will be available to the community, too. Other uses are also possible. With the two-rink IcePlex and the three-rink IceDen in Coral Springs, “we now have five sheets of ice that we’re programming, so we can bid on large national hockey tournaments as well,” Caldwell said.
After the community ice rink opens, David Cardaci will open a second-floor restaurant at the IcePlex. He and Vanessa Cardaci are the founders of Knallhart Management Group, which runs multiple food and beverage venues in Fort Lauderdale, including The Angeles nightclub, Roxanne’s Liquor Bar & Kitchen, and restaurants Holly Blue, Rhythm & Vine and The Whole Enchilada, which also has locations beyond Fort Lauderdale in Oakland Park, Plantation and Winter Garden. “We spoke to a number of groups, and they’re all great,” Caldwell said. “But David’s very familiar with the area. If you look at his properties, many of them are very close to War Memorial.”
The reopening of upgraded War Memorial Auditorium will mark the final phase of the overall Holiday Park project. “The last component is the music venue,” Caldwell said. With an audience capacity of 4,000, the auditorium will be suitable for “smaller acts that are up and coming but not ready for a big arena.” The Panthers organization has an agreement with entertainment company Live Nation to handle bookings at War Memorial, which the California-based company now does at the Sunrise home of the Panthers, recently renamed Amerant Bank Arena and previously known as the BB&T Center.
The Sunrise arena, owned by Broward County, will remain the home of the Florida Panthers for five more years unless Viola’s team opts out of a lease agreement to keep the team’s home schedule there until 2028. “We could. But there’s penalties for that. It would be very difficult,” Caldwell said. “Technically, we could. But we have no plans to do it.”
Indeed, after appearing in the NHL playoffs in each of the last four seasons and competing last season in the Stanley Cup Finals, season ticket sales were strong before the start of the 2023-24 season in October. “We have sold out of season tickets in all the lower bowl [of the arena] and the club level. Winning certainly helps,” Caldwell said. “We’re really happy with the arena, especially the attendance the last several years. We want to be in Broward, bottom line.”
The president and CEO of the Panthers left the door open for a possible move east, though. Asked if the Panthers organization had considered moving the team’s home ice to Fort Lauderdale, Caldwell said, “We would be open to discussion. But we’re really happy where we are right now.”