Florida Panthers NHL Hockey

H. Wayne Huizenga acquired the Florida Panthers, often referred to as the Cats, as a professional ice hockey team franchise in 1993. Their first games were played in the old Miami Arena (replaced by the American Airlines Arena), and they now play in the Bank Atlantic Center. It was during this time, in 1995, that the term “ratmania” came into play. After headlines were made when a rat was discovered in their locker room, black plastic rats were thrown on the ice by the fans each time the Panthers scored. Under the leadership of Doug MacLean as coach, the Panthers did well in the early years, and in 1996, they qualified for the first time in the Stanley Cup playoffs, after finishing 4th in the Eastern Conference. Although they defeated the Boston Bruins, the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, they lost in the finals to the Colorado Avalanche. Bill Lindsay earned a place in ice hockey history for the goal that gave the Panthers their first playoff victory, while literally thousands of rats flew through the air. 1997 was another good year for the Cats under MacLean, and attendance was high as they celebrated their 50th consecutive sellout at the Miami Arena. Hockey Fest ‘98 brought 40,000 hockey fans to the arena (renamed the Office Depot Center at the time).

The Panthers, like all other sports franchises, have seen their share of hiring and firing of managers and coaches, as well as the trading of players. Perhaps the biggest franchise trade in hockey history was the noteworthy acquisition of Pavel Bure, right wing, along with defensemen Hedican and Ference from the Vancouver Canucks in 1998. Bure, scoring his first hat trick for the Panthers in January 1999, left the team in March due to injuries that required extensive knee surgery. In August 1999, Bure returned to bring the Panthers back on track, and recorded his 500th career point in October against Montreal. Bure, the “Russian Rocket,” continued setting records for the Cats from December 1999 as Player of the Week and Player of the Month and MVP in 2000. Bure was definitely on a roll, with 59 goals for the 2000 — 2001 season, winning the Maurice Richard Trophy for the second straight season, the first NHL player in history to do so. Once again, however, a trade was made, and Bure left the Cats for the New York Rangers in 2002.

Although approximately 20,000 fans watched their team lose the playoff game to New Jersey in 2000, it was certainly the best season to date for the Panthers, as they ended with 43 wins and 98 points in the overall standings. More records were set as Robert Luongo, acquired in 2000, scored hat tricks right and left and recorded his sixth shutout, a new season record for the Panthers in 2003, and again in 2004 with a seventh shutout. Luongo went on to capture the Rookie record in 2001, the NHL defensive Player of the Week in 2005, and to be considered in the final competition for the Vezina Trophy in 2004. This outstanding player left in June 2006 in a trade with the Canucks that brought Bertuzzi, Auld, and Allen to the Cats.

The franchise was purchased in 2001 by a group of eight investors that included Alan Cohen, CEO of Andrx Corp, NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar, the Maroone brothers of auto fame, Zimmerman of advertising, and Epstein, CEO of Precision Response, while Huizenga remained as a minority partner. The Cats, incredible ICE, Arena Operating Corporation merged into one in 2003, and the NHL All-Star weekend was hosted in South Florida, for the first time. Incredible ICE, a 75,000 square foot sports and entertainment venue, is the training camp and home for the Panthers, as well as for visiting teams, where all practices are free to the public to watch.

Miami and South Florida have reason to be proud of their ice hockey team. Six players represented their countries at the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics, including Jacques Martin, Luongo, Bouwmeetster, and Stumpel, along with Jokinen who won the silver and Olesz the bronze. The Florida Panthers contribute a lot to the community through the Florida Panthers Foundation. Notable players who support various charitable causes include Jokinen, Bertuzzi, Van Ryn, Gratton, and Belfour. The team also sponsors “Cats Cookouts,” an annual event that gives fans the opportunity to purchase season tickets. The Jr Panthers is an offshoot of the team, a group of youthful hockey players that was organized to encourage skill, good sportsmanship, and fun in competition. In February 2007 the Cats expect to fill the Bank Atlantic Center to capacity as they host the 2nd annual Ice & Dice Casino Night. With Panthers’ players as dealers, along with wives and girlfriends, the event will feature an auction and a chance to win cruises, concert tickets, and golf packages, as well as NHL and Panthers’ memorabilia.

Jacques Martin, the Panthers’ head coach, remains hopeful that “ratmania” will take them all the way to the Finals, if not this year, the next; 2008 is, after all, the year of the rat.

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