By: Andy Kent
History of the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers.
Once Wayne Huizenga got the taste of owning a professional sports franchise with the Miami Dolphins in 1992 he couldn’t get enough, satiating himself with the purchase of the NHL’s Florida Panthers and MLB’s Florida Marlins (now the Miami Marlins) the following year.
The Blockbuster Video and Waste Management magnate sought immediate success for the expansion team by hiring former New York Islanders general manager Bill Torrey as team president and Hall-of-Famer Bobby Clarke as general manager.
The Panthers played their home games at Miami Arena for their first five seasons from 1993-98, sharing the facility with the NBA’s Miami HEAT, the only one of Miami’s four pro sports franchises not owned by Huizenga. They enjoyed their memorable run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals in that building, where the infamous tradition of throwing rats on the ice after wins or big goals began as a result of the legendary story of Scott Mellanby killing a rat in the locker room before the home opener and swatting it across the room with his hockey stick. Mellanby then went out and scored two goals with that same stick in a 4-3 win over the Calgary Flames.
Florida’s improbable playoff run ended in a sweep by the Colorado Avalanche in the Finals, but its popularity with a non-traditional hockey fan base was palpable, and Huizenga seized upon that by moving the team north into Broward County and into the brand new National Car Rental Center (now BB&T Center) in Sunrise.
Acquiring the speedy and exciting Pavel Bure, Dzthe Russian Rocket,dz in a blockbuster trade with the Vancouver Canucks, the Panthers reached the playoffs the following season, losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils in the first round.
Huizenga sold the Panthers after the 2000-01 season to an ownership group led by Alan Cohen and the team slumped to its worst record ever in 2001-02, despite Bure being reunited with his brother, Valeri. The Panthers found themselves mired in a 10-season playoff drought from 2000-01 until the 2011-12 season, when they were eliminated by the New Jersey Devils in the first round of the playoffs.
Brooklyn native Vincent Viola teamed up with Long Island native Doug Cifu to buy the team in 2013 and two years later the Panthers were back in the playoffs after winning the most games (47) and compiling the most points (103) in franchise history.
Unfortunately, another first-round exit was in the cards as the New York Islanders prevailed in six games, with three of them ending in overtime and Games 5 and 6going to double overtime.
This era was highlighted by the presence of Hall-of-Fame forward Jaromir Jagr and the all-time winningest goaltender for the Panthers, Roberto Luongo, along with rising young stars Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and Nick Bjugstad. Huberdeau (2012-13) and Ekblad (2014-15) were both winners of the Calder Memorial Trophy presented to the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.
The Panthers originally trained up in Broward County, in Pompano Beach at the Gold Coast Ice Arena and then moved to their own practice facility in Coral Springs.
In addition to being home to the Panthers, the BB&T Center has hosted the NHL All-Star Game, NHL Draft and numerous concerts from Billy Joel to Bruce Springsteen to Elton John. Fans can enjoy seats on the glass, club level seats and luxury suites for games and can call 1-800-745-3000 or visit the team’s official website at panthers.nhl.com.
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