Defining Moments: The Florida Panthers

The thought of a hockey team was probably somewhat laughable back in the 80s. Yet 1993 brought the city of Miami a team called the Panthers, and for whatever reason, it caught on. Hockey in the Sunshine State. It didn’t seem feasible, but nearly 22 years later, it’s still hanging in there despite some dark seasons. Over two decades, though, there have been moments that make fans and critics alike think long and hard about this team and its longevity, regardless of the set-backs.

The Year of the Rat

On October 8, 1995, just before the third season home opener for the Panthers against the Calgary Flames, a rat had the audacity to scamper into the locker room. Winger Scott Mellanby used his stick to shoot the rat across the room to its death. He went on to score two goals that night, causing veteran goalie John Vanbiesbrouck to jokingly refer to it as a “Rat Trick.”

Somehow, the play on words caught on and fans began to throw hundreds of plastic rats on the ice after each goal. In fact, so many that it caused the NHL to amend its rules before the beginning of the 1996–97 season to prevent the delays to the game that followed. It declared that if fans threw debris onto the ice, the referee can have the public address announcer warn the fans to stop. After a warning, the referee can then issue a delay of game penalty to the home team.

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Although the craze was forced to die down, it resurfaced again when the Panthers made it to the playoffs in 2012, and it feels safe to assume that should the team make it to the playoffs again, rats will make more appearances.

1996 Eastern Conference Championship

Every sports bar in South Florida was tuned in to one station on June 1, 1996–game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Florida Panthers beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, winning the Prince of Wales Trophy and the right to play in the team’s first-ever Stanley Cup Finals against the Colorado Avalanche.

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With goals from Mike Hough, Tom Fitzgerald and Johan Garpenlov, the Cats outscored the Pens 3-1 in Pittsburgh, leaving fans back home reeling from a combination of shock and excitement. It was real now; the Panthers were going to the Stanley Cup Finals in what was just their third season.

Game 4 – 1996 Stanley Cup Final

Despite a heartbreaking third overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche on June 10, 1996, fans were absolutely dazzled by their home town team. While winning the Cup would have been phenomenal, it didn’t even matter anymore. No one in Florida (other than some snow birds) really even understood what that meant; what they understood was a team who went all the way and fought to the bitter end.

In game 4, down 3 games to none, the team went three overtimes in a desperate attempt to keep the series alive. John Vanbiesbrouck was stellar, fending off 55 shots, until Uwe Krupp finally snuck in a goal at 4:31 of the third overtime. It might have been the shot that lost the Panthers the Cup, but cemented their place in their home town’s heart. Two days later, nearly 15,000 fans filled the Miami Arena to thank the team for a sensational season.

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Re-Acquiring Roberto Luongo

On March 4, 2014, Roberto Luongo was re-acquired by the Panthers. After leaving the team to go to Vancouver in 2006, and a somewhat tenuous relationship with coach John Tortorella, Luongo got to come home. Literally. Though he had moved to Vancouver, he kept a home in Ft. Lauderdale and was somewhat vocal about his desire to go back.

Fans were equally exuberant. Social media went crazy when the announcement was made, and for good reason. A team that had been struggling for more than a decade suddenly had hope.

NHL Record-breaking Shootout

On December 16, 2014, the Panthers had fans and hockey lovers in general completely mesmerized as they and the Washington Capitals broke an NHL record by going twenty rounds in a shootout. This would be the second time the Caps would compete in a record-breaking shootout (the first against the New York Rangers in 2005), and also the second time they would lose.

The Panthers, however, would get not just an extra point, but a much-needed boost of morale. Fans were literally on the edge of their seats and hockey fans everywhere would see replays of that shootout over and over for days afterwards. The Panthers were, if only temporarily, a household name within the hockey world once again, and it felt good.

While there is no doubt these are not the only momentous occasions the Panthers have experienced over their 22 seasons as a franchise, they are perhaps some of the most riveting. Hopefully, these are just the beginning.