There are rodents in the air as Kevin Spacey smiles down on us all from above. The wins are piling up, like the plastic rats that sheet the ice after a home team win at the BB&T Center. The playoffs are here. How far can this team go?
Are we still talking about the Florida Panthers?
These are heady times indeed for Broward County’s only major professional sports franchise, which has been little more than background music for the rest of the National Hockey League during the majority of the team’s 23-season history.
These days, the Panthers are no longer a punchline. They’re quickly becoming one of the NHL’s marquee acts.
And why not? They have a 44-year-old future Hall of Famer in Jaromir Jagr playing like he’s a 24-year-old future Hall of Famer. There’s Roberto Luongo, the veteran goalie and all-time wins leader among active netminders. There’s a stacked lineup featuring a pair of 20-year-olds in defenseman Aaron Ekblad and center Aleksander Barkov, all flanked by a cadre of emerging stars at every position. “The more they see them,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon says of his young talents, “the more the fans are going to like them.”
There’s the return of the rats, Florida’s victory celebration born in a 1996 almost-run to a championship. And then there’s that whole Kevin Spacey thing.
“I want to stay here forever”
So much has changed in Sunrise just in the last year, even in the last few months.
When a group led by New York billionaire Vincent Viola bought the Panthers in 2013, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said those longtime rumors and rumblings that the Panthers were on their way out of South Florida should be laid to rest forever.
Stubbornly, they persisted.
Attendance dwindled in the 2014-15 season, including an all-time low of 7,311 fans for an early-season game against Ottawa (and that figure was being generous.) Photos of a mostly empty in the 2014-15 season, including an all-time low of 7,311 fans for an early-season game against Ottawa (and that figure was being generous.) Photos of a mostly empty arena made the rounds on social media, fueling more speculation.
The rumors continued as average attendance fell to its lowest levels in franchise history and last in the league. Financially, the losses piled up: The Panthers reportedly lost $36 million and $27 million in the last two years.
Though the team had a lease at the county-owned BB&T Center that runs through 2028, the Panthers sought financial relief from county commissioners. The end result of that negotiation might be the most important thing to happen to professional hockey in Broward since construction of the $221-million arena in 1998 brought the franchise here from the old Miami.
In the end, Broward commissioners pledged $86 million to help keep the team afloat – and in Broward County. The proceeds of the December 8 deal – derived from tourism taxes – won’t feed directly into the team’s bottom line or fund hockey operations. Almost all of that money is pledged for capital improvements and operating expenses of the arena, which also hosts about 75 non-hockey events annually.
“The county deal has given us the opportunity to be financially stable and to be able to tell the community that we’ll be here long-term,” says Peter Luukko, the team’s executive chairman. “Financially, it gives us the opportunity to compete.”
Luukko says there were never any talks with anyone other than Broward County. Players said it was a relief to put those relocation rumors to rest.
“We’re going to be here for a long time and we’re going to build a culture of winning,” says Ekblad, an All-Star selection in each of his two seasons in the league. “I love this place and I don’t want to go anywhere else. That’s kind of a relief. I want to stay here forever.”
Streaking and Selling
One week after the watershed arena deal, Florida began a three-game road trip with a nondescript 5-1 win over the New York Islanders. Two nights later, it was a 5-1 win at New Jersey, then 2-0 at Carolina. The Panthers returned to Sunrise for a six-game homestand over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Six games and six more wins, with sellout crowds against Montreal and the New York Rangers.
On New Year’s Day, the Panthers announced a reported three-year contract extension with Tallon. A day later, they announced that coach Gerard Gallant had agreed to a two-year extension, keeping the coach and GM under contract through at least 2018-19.
In the front office, all kinds of phones were ringing. Ticket sales were going up. Team store sales were setting records. Sponsors were calling the team (instead of the other way around) to find out how they could get involved.
“Our goal was to be relevant in the marketplace,” Luukko says. “The quickest way to be relevant is to win. And a lot of people’s efforts are coming to fruition.”
Those wins kept coming. On the ice and off the ice, home or away…didn’t matter.
The winning streak ultimately reached 12 games – far outpacing the previous franchise record of seven – before an overtime loss on January 11 in Vancouver. The defeat was punctuated with a postgame brawl and followed by four straight losses.
The Panthers righted the ship at home with a blowout win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, and, one night later, they defeated the defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning. It was the first time a team had knocked off the previous season’s Stanley Cup finalists in consecutive games since the 1990-91 season.
So, within a four-week period, the Panthers had a franchise record winning streak and vaulted into first place in the Atlantic Division. They had their arena deal, securing their future in South Florida. They locked up two key pieces in their general manager and head coach to contract extensions and, in late January, inked rising star Barkov to a new six-year deal.
That’s a remarkable run for any team, but, right in the middle of it all, Kevin Spacey somehow became the patron saint of Panthers hockey.
Barkov was the first to wear it, or at least the first to be seen wearing it – a blue hoodie with Kevin Spacey’s face emblazoned across the chest and a far-off galaxy (or perhaps it’s a nearby one, who’s to say?) serving as the backdrop. It made its first appearance in the Panthers dressing room on December 29 after a 3-1 win over Montreal. Barkov was the team’s MVP for that game.
And the Panthers’ Spacey In Space – ahem, twitterfans, #SpaceyInSpace – tradition was born. The sweatshirt is given to the team’s MVP after every win.
“These are the fun things that just happen,” Luukko says. “They take off and have a life of their own.”
Players won’t say why their lucky charm’s a blue sweatshirt bearing Kevin Spacey’s floating likeness, but players, fans and even the actor himself have bought in. Early on, when people started asking what it all meant, the two-time Oscar winner tweeted to the team: “Only I really know what #SpaceyInSpace means. Hope it continues to bring good luck!”
Spacey upped the ante when during a February 4 home game against Detroit, he appeared on the arena video board. An unknown man flipped through shirts in a closet, eventually settling on a Panthers jersey that read “Spacey” on the back along with the somewhat cumbersome number 1738. (The number is a reference to a lyric in the team’s unofficial victory song, “Trap Queen” by Fetty Wap.) The camera panned back to reveal a smiling Spacey, who gave a thumbs-up as the crowd exploded into cheers.
The Panthers began selling the Spacey in Space sweatshirts in January at the team store, with proceeds going to the Florida Panthers Foundation and the Kevin Spacey Foundation. They had to order another shipment after the first load sold out.
“It’s time to get invested”
Long winning streaks? A-list actors? These types of things just don’t happen to the Florida Panthers.
It’s not that the Panthers have never experienced any success since coming into the NHL in 1993, but the winning tradition just isn’t there, even if they did enter the league with a splash.
Led by veteran goalie John Vanbiesbrouck and fueled by the Year of the Rat hysteria, the upstart Panthers, in just their third year in the league, parlayed a third-place finish in the Atlantic Division in 1995-96 into a playoff run that led to an Eastern Conference championship. Though the Panthers were ultimately swept in the Stanley Cup finals by the Colorado Avalanche, things were looking up for the young franchise.
“We didn’t win a Stanley Cup, but we won over the fans here,” Vanbiesbrouck says.
That honeymoon didn’t last long. The Panthers returned to the playoffs the following season, only to be bounced in the first round. After another first-round exit in 2000, the Panthers then missed the postseason an NHL record 10 consecutive seasons.
Florida ended the postseason drought with the franchise’s only division championship in 2011-12 but was again dropped in the first round, this time by New Jersey in seven games. To add insult to injury, the Devils were coached by Peter DeBoer, who
the Panthers had fired as their head coach less than a year earlier.
With that playoff defeat to New Jersey, another dubious streak remained intact: Florida still hasn’t won a playoff series since that run to the finals in 1996. Those 18 seasons are the second-longest active streak in the league behind the New York Islanders (21 seasons) and the fourth-longest all-time.
“How do you build a [fan] base with that?” Luukko asks. That might all be changing. This ownership group says they’re in it for the long haul in Broward. Luukko says that fans here are often labeled as “fickle,” but, just like in any other market, they want to see that the team is committed before they invest their time and emotion.
“Fans are smart,” Luukko says. “If they know you’re committed to winning, and they see the performance on the ice, the rest will follow.”
The Panthers draw most of their fans from Broward, but over the years it hasn’t been uncommon for there to be more fans of visiting teams than Panthers fans in the stands. That’s starting to change, too. Luukko says all hockey fans are welcome – he grew up following the Boston Bruins, worked for the Philadelphia Flyers for more than two decades and regularly checks in on
both – but the Panthers are eager to win everyone over.
“It’s OK to be a Blackhawks fan or a Rangers fan or a Canadiens fan,” Luukko says. “Our goal: we are going to become your favorite team. This is my adopted team. I’m not saying to give up your roots, but we’re going to be your team.”
The question has been lingering over this franchise since it set up shop here in 1993: Can hockey work in South Florida? To arrive at the right answer, it’s important to ask the right questions.
The reality is that the front office has never been sharper. The roster is populated with bright young stars (with more on the way) and capable veterans. Merchandise sales are through the roof (“When people are buying apparel, it means they’re buying in,” Luukko says), and ticket sales are growing again.
The window is opening for this franchise for a period of sustained success. The opportunity is there, on the ice and off.
So the question really isn’t whether hockey can work here. The question is whether a successful hockey franchise will work here – because one way or another, we’re about to find out.
“It’s time to get invested,” Luukko says. “These guys are for real.”
The Rat Pack
Panthers fans are known for littering the ice with plastic rats, first after Panthers goals (much to the chagrin of the NHL) and later just after home victories. The Panthers even have two mascots – in addition to Stanley C. Panther, there’s Victor E. Rat.
So, why rats?
The story goes that before the 1995 home opener, a live rat emerged in the Panthers dressing room. Winger Scott Mellanby killed it with his hockey stick, then scored two goals in the game. Goalie John Vanbiesbrouck dubbed it a “rat trick,” playing off the term “hat trick” for a three-goal game.
Soon Panthers fans were littering the ice with plastic rats after every Florida goal. That 1995-96 team – in the Chinese calendar’s Year of the Rat, no less – went all the way to the Stanley Cup final before falling to Colorado, fans raining rats all along the way.
The rat-tossing inspired an NHL rule change during that off season, allowing referees to issue a penalty to the home team if their fans cause a delay by throwing items onto the ice.
The Panthers actually stopped selling the rats during their 2012 playoffs series against New Jersey, blaming visiting Devils fans at the BB&T Center for throwing them and trying to induce a penalty on the home team.
But the rats are back this season; you can even buy a T-shirt at the team store saying as much. And of course, you can buy a plastic rat.
Panthers Foundation and the Kevin Spacey Foundation. They had to order another shipment after the first load sold out.
Still Buzzing for Beezer
As Panthers fever catches on again in South Florida, consider former goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck as Patient Zero.
In 1993, the brand-new Panthers made Vanbiesbrouck their first selection in the NHL expansion draft. That year “Beezer” went 21-25 with a 2.53 goals-against average and was runner-up to future Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek for the Vezina Trophy, given to the league’s top netminder. Vanbiesbrouck also was the winning goalie in the 1994 NHL All-Star Game, the first of three All-Star selections in his five seasons with the Panthers. But he’s best remembered for his crucial role in the Panthers’ run to the Stanley Cup final in 1996.
Vanbiesbrouck was given a warm welcome at the BB&T Center in November when he returned for induction into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame. Fittingly, current Panthers goalie Luongo made 39 saves that night to shut out the defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning, 1-0.
“We did some special things here,” Vanbiesbrouck said at the game. “You don’t know how long-lasting it all will be, but when you build a rapport with the fans, that’s the most important thing. That’s why we play the game.”
Vanbiesbrouck retired with 374 wins (the most all-time for an American-born goalie) and 40 shutouts over 20 NHL seasons. He represented the United States as a backup goalie on the 1998 Olympic team and was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.
The Detroit-born goalie, who also played for the Rangers, Flyers, Islanders and Devils, now runs the United States Hockey League’s Muskegon Lumberjacks in Michigan.
Meet the Team
Name: Willie Mitchell
Hometown: Port McNeill, British Columbia
Of note: Was eighth-round pick by New Jersey in 1996 NHL Draft. // Won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014. // Came to Florida as a free agent before the 2014-15 season. // Was a teammate to current Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo with the Vancouver Canucks from 2006-10.
Name: Jaromir Jagr
Hometown: Kladno, Czech Republic
Of note: Has a group of Canadian fans called the “Traveling Jagrs” who celebrate his career (and his hair). // Is the league’s oldest active player and the active leader in goals and assists. // Is just the fourth non-goalie to play an NHL game at age 44. // Made NHL debut in 1990-91 season. // Led league in scoring five times. // Won gold medal with Czech Republic at the 1998 Winter Olympics and a bronze in 2006.
THE CAGEY VETERAN
Name: Roberto Luongo
Hometown: Montreal, Quebec
Of note: Four-time NHL All-Star. // Played five seasons with the Panthers between 2000 to 2006. // Led Vancouver to the Stanley Cup Final in 2011. // Traded back to the Panthers in 2014. // Ranks seventh all-time and first among active players in wins.
THE YOUNG GUN
Name: Aaron Ekblad
Hometown: Windsor, Ontario
Of note: Was the first overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. // Won Calder Trophy as top rookie in 2015. // Has made the All-Star team in each of his first two seasons. // Donned the Panthers’ “Spacey in Space” sweatshirt during January’s NHL All-Star Skills Competition.
Name: Peter Luukko
Role: Executive Chairman
Of note: Grew up following the Boston Bruins, but spent more than two decades as an executive with the Philadelphia Flyers. // Joined the Panthers in February 2015. // Wore a lucky Panthers tie on game days for each win during the Panthers’ 12-game streak.
BEHIND THE BENCH
Name: Gerard Gallant
Hometown: Summerside, Prince Edward Island
Of note: In 11 pro seasons (mostly with Detroit), racked up 1,674 penalty minutes and 211 goals playing left wing. // With the Red Wings, was linemate to Hockey Hall of Famer and current Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. // Coached the Columbus Blue Jackets between 2003 and 2007.
Name: Dale Tallon
Role: General Manager
Hometown: Noranda, Quebec
Of note: Helped build Chicago Blackhawks into Stanley Cup contenders as general manager from 2005-09. // Had his name engraved on Stanley Cup when Chicago won championship in 2010. // Scored 98 goals as a defenseman in 10 NHL seasons with Vancouver, Chicago and Pittsburgh. // Joined the Panthers in 2010.