Florida Panthers Flashback: Paul Laus

Laus Enforcement. If you lived in South Florida from 1993 through approximately 2003, you know exactly what that means. If not, you not only missed out on some great hockey, you missed out on some of the most memorable players in the history of the Florida Panthers. The inaugural team was an entity that rose above the NHL as a whole, simply because it was so incredibly unique. Coming to a non-hockey location like Miami, with no big-name superstars on the roster, there was no way to predict what was going to happen. Amazingly, this original team wound up playing some of the most exciting hockey a new team may have ever played, going all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in just three years, and one of the guys that made that happen was a formidable defenseman named Paul Laus.

The Beginning

Originally drafted 37th overall by Pittsburgh in 1989, he was the second defenseman taken by Florida in the 1993 Expansion NHL Expansion Draft. Ironically, Laus was in Las Vegas when he found out he was going to the big leagues.

“We were in Las Vegas and got a phone call that I was being picked up by the Florida Panthers,” he says in a lighthearted voice that doesn’t seem to represent the hard core bruiser he was known as when he played. “I didn’t even know at the time. That was our honeymoon and so basically we went from getting married and moving to Florida and being there for 13 years.”

Thirteen amazing years where “Laus Enforcement” became a bit of a household word, his on-ice toughness and hard-nosed play made it clear to teams everywhere that you weren’t going to get away with anything when Laus was around. Interestingly enough, he didn’t start out as a fighter. In fact, it happened almost by accident.

“I was never really an offensive player growing up,” he said. “I mean, in the first couple of years until I got to major juniors, it was a role that was needed and I just kind of fell into it basically. To be honest, I enjoyed it. Like I say to my wife, where else can I go out and get into a fight and five minutes later come out and not be in jail and not be… you know, so I think I took whatever frustration I had throughout the day and that was my outlet for it.”

Glory Days

Going straight from the IHL’s Cleveland Lumberjack’s to the Panthers, Laus wasn’t sure exactly how he was going to fit in or what his role would actually be, but it didn’t take long for that to become crystal clear. With captain Brian Skrudland at the helm, and a slew of others that included veteran Scott Mellanby and a rookie named Rob Niedermayer, Laus took on his role as the team enforcer and never looked back. At 6’1″ and 215 pounds, he wasn’t the biggest guy in the league, but he was definitely one of the toughest.

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With a career total 14 goals and 58 assists, he wasn’t a point scorer, but accumulating a whopping 1702 penalty minutes more than made up for it. He knew his job and didn’t just fight for the fun of it; he fought because it made other teams think twice before doing something they shouldn’t. In fact, he thinks the current trend of trying to limit fighting in the NHL could be more detrimental than helpful.

“It’s the one sport where they had an outlet where if you had something to settle, a score to settle, or a guy did a cheap shot,” he explains. “It gave you an outlet to settle the score basically. And it controlled the game. They’ve taken that out and you’ve seen the high sticks or you’ve seen the head shots, and I think the more head shots and the more high sticks that you see it’s because they’re almost eliminating that type of player where there’s no fear anymore that these guys can run around and take runs at the top players and there’s going to be no repercussions from it. Back when I played, each team had three or four guys and you knew that if you ran at the top player, two seconds later someone’s going to come after you. So there always was that, in the back of their head, that if you played outside the rules basically, you had to answer for yourself.”

On the other hand, he understands the dangers all too well, especially now with a son who plays hockey.

“I’m not a fan of the fact that they’re trying to take it out,” he continued. “As a parent, I can see it. But as a former player, I understand the need for it. I’m kind of on the fence with it. I understand that there’s a lot of injuries, not just hockey but any sport, and it’s the only sport that you can settle a score with basically your bare knuckles. It’s like a street fight almost, so I’m on the fence with it. I mean, I don’t think it should be allowed in the lower levels, but in the minors and juniors, I think it needs to stay.”

Life in Florida

The first few years in Florida were magical, and although he was known as the tough guy on the ice, he and the rest of the team had a reputation for being laid-back and approachable to the general public. Unlike many of the superstars today, who keep a low profile outside the rink, the Panthers thought it was more important to get out and be part of the community.

“There wasn’t one big star,” he says. “It was everyone was on the same page. Everyone would go to dinner. We got along as a group and it wasn’t just the players, it was the training staff, the coaches, the management–it was just a very special time. I don’t think you’ll ever see that again in a long time. Even the fans, we got to know a lot of the fans up close and personal because the way the practice facility was set up, the way the Miami Arena was set up, you just interacted with them so much.”

The End of An Era

Unfortunately for Laus, despite an auspicious start, the Panthers began to lose momentum after their 1996 Stanley Cup loss to the Colorado Avalanche, and it was during a fight nearly six years later that he sustained the injury that eventually cost him his career. He broke his right wrist in a fight against Atlanta’s Jeff Cowan, and after several surgeries and actually attempting to play again, Laus realized his career was over.

Regardless of the way things ended, Laus doesn’t have a lot of regrets and he knows it was truly just bad luck.

“I think to most of the players—I mean there’s always one or two that are complete idiots—but for the most part I think they respect each other enough that, you know, when you fall down on the ice you respect where the other guy’s at, okay, you let up. You know, you’re one with it. That’s it, we’re settled. So I mean, I think it’s the one sport that the players have that much respect for each other, more than any other sport.”

Moving On

Yet his days with the sport were over. Although he tried to come back, it wasn’t happening. He essentially hit Cowan so hard that he drove his hand through his wrist and split it in two. He didn’t even realize something was wrong for a couple of shifts before finally leaving to go to the hospital. In the end, through therapy and multiple surgeries, his wrist and hand had to be fused together, making it impossible for him to bend his wrist. Though he misses the game, he’s not angry and explains why.

“I think the biggest thing for me was, when it happened I still had 3 years left on my contract, so I kind of knew that this was the end for me, so back then it was, well, we have three years to plan and we have three years that after this, we’re done making that kind of money. So I think with my family, it put us in a mindset that, okay, we know the end. To some players it happens in the last year of their contract where, okay, that’s it you’re done, and it’s a tough adjustment. But you know what? I had three  years to plan for it and you know, if I do find a silver lining out of it, that would be it. We knew there was an end and it was time to basically look to the future and see what’s going to happen.”

On the bright side, he finally had the chance to be a hands-on Dad, and be there for both his wife and children, which had not always been the case before. He missed a lot, he admits, including the birth of his second daughter.

“Now I’m around all the time,” he jokes. “Maybe they’re sick of me, I don’t know.”

After making the difficult decision to leave their friends and life behind in South Florida, they went back to their home town in Ontario, Canada, where Laus joined the family truck dealership and repair shop with his sister, allowing their father to retire. He coaches his 13-year-old son’s hockey team and says he enjoys that part a lot, especially since most of the kids don’t even realize he’d played in the NHL

“It’s funny, some of the kids didn’t even know who I was,” he laugh. “The parents told them and the next day they come in and they looked at me totally different. And the father would say to me that they told them and I would go, Oh, no wonder he was looking at me different.”

He’s also enjoying watching his son grow as a player. “Coaching my son, totally not the player I was; he actually can handle the puck which I probably couldn’t. He’s very skilled and it’s exciting to see him progress.”

Life in Retirement

Although he no longer plays or keeps in touch with many of his former teammates, he still has a lot of great memories. “My thing I enjoyed was coming in and being around the guys,” he admits. “There’s so many personalities, and you know, just getting to know new people and stuff. I do miss that. If there’s one thing I do miss is the leading up to a game, you know, that excitement. I do miss that.”

Many of their South Florida friends come up to visit and he said he’s been joking with his wife about becoming snow birds, the way his parents were when he played in Florida. The decision to leave Florida was a difficult one, but he doesn’t have any regrets.

“You know, me and my wife, we always wanted to stay in Florida and the opportunities I don’t think were going to happen with the ownership at the time there. We made the decision to bring our family back to where we grew up, and move back here. I just kind of was around, took the kids to school and was involved with their school, basically my dad retired and my sister asked, You want to come on board and help out and stuff? And I said sure.”

As for the possibility  of his getting back into the business of hockey, he doesn’t think that’s in his future. “I really don’t know. Probably not. I wouldn’t know. It would have to be the right situation, and I don’t think I’d want to travel again. I don’t know, it’s hard to say now. My kids are older and I enjoy coaching the kids. They listen to me.”

He may not be a Florida Panther anymore, but Laus Enforcement definitely lives on.