How to Make New Hockey Fans in Florida

On April 2, 1513, Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon discovered Florida. Exactly 503 years later, my in-laws discovered the Florida Panthers.

Back in January, Joe and Paula Pedrotti moved from Kerrville, Texas, to Vero Beach, Florida. Last week, my wife (Lisa) and I flew to the Sunshine State for a visit. We wanted to help Joe and Paula feel more at home in their new state by showing them some fun things to see and do in the area. Prior to the trip, Lisa and I offered some options for the weekend, including a day trip to Tampa, the Kennedy Space Center or a Florida Panthers game.

Surprisingly, Joe chose the Panthers – Montreal Canadiens game. Neither he (a NASCAR, basketball, golf and baseball fan) nor Paula (a football fan) had ever seen a hockey game in person and they hadn’t seen much on television, either. I suspect his interest was piqued by my writing for THW and he wanted to see for himself what all the fuss was about. Rather than question my father-in-law’s judgment, I immediately got online and found four great seats in section 123, row 24.

Last Saturday, we made the two-hour trek down Interstate 95 from Vero Beach to Sunrise. Parking at the BB&T Center was a breeze. On our palm tree-lined stroll to the arena, the presence of pre-game tailgaters made for a festive atmosphere. We reached our seats well before the opening faceoff.

The Panthers got off to a rocky start, outplayed, outshot and outscored by the Habs in the opening frame. The first half of the second period wasn’t much better, as Montreal extended their lead to 3-0. Like most of the 17,427 fans in attendance, Joe and Paula were less than impressed with the Panthers at that point. They were curious about the game, however, asking questions about icing, offsides, power plays and line changes.

Just two minutes after the Canadiens’ third goal, however, an Aleksander Barkov shot went off Jaromir Jagr’s skate and into the Montreal net, putting Florida on the board. From that point on, the Cats were in control. The mood of the crowd changed noticeably. A Barkov goal with 34 seconds remaining in the second period cut Montreal’s lead to one, setting the arena abuzz.

The Panthers came out flying in the third period, further energizing the crowd. The Travelling Jagrs started “The Wave,” which circled the arena repeatedly. At the 12:17 mark, a Jonathan Huberdeau power-play goal tied the game in spectacular fashion:

I can’t remember if this happened before or after Huberdeau’s game-tying goal, but at one point in the final frame, I nudged my wife and pointed to Joe and Paula, who were both perched on the edge of their seats, leaning forward, fully engaged in the game. When Barkov scored the game-winner with 29 seconds left, Joe jumped to his feet in celebration.

The raucous crowd, pumped up by the improbable come-from-behind victory, exited the arena and poured into the parking lot amid chants of “Let’s go, Panthers!” A couple of days later, after the excitement of the moment had worn off, I interviewed my in-laws about their first-ever hockey game experience.

THW: What was your overall impression of the Panthers game?

Joe Pedrotti: The game we went to was exciting, it was memorable, it was a display of fantastic, fanatical fans. It was thoroughly enjoyable. Having never seen one, I did not know what to expect.

Paula Pedrotti: I was impressed with it. It was very exciting. I had no idea there was so much physical contact, no idea how hard they worked out there.

THW: How has going to a game changed your perception of hockey?

PP: The couple of times I’d seen it [on television], it looked about as boring as golf. Instead of hitting a little ball around, they hit a little puck around.

JP: It’s a whole different deal [in person].

PP: Oh, yeah.

JP: I’d seen a few games on TV, and I just thought it was a brawl. It was not interesting because everyone was always brawling and fighting, and I thought it was staged. Did not enjoy it. I had no idea of the skill these guys have to have on skates, on ice…had no idea. By the end of the game, I started to recognize how they were setting up plays. So there was strategy that I could see.

THW: How does hockey compare to other sports you’ve seen live or on television?

JP: For excitement, I’d put it in the category of a basketball game. To me, that’s very exciting in person. On television, it can be very exciting, too, but not the same. I think the same of hockey. If you’re there in person, you get the full force and effect of it.

PP: Well, I’m a big football fan in person, so it’s right in there with football. Lots of action!

THW: What was your impression of the Panthers fans?

JP: Unbelievable!

PP: Yeah!

JP: I mean, obviously, these fans are fanatical.

PP: Yes, they are.

JP: And that fanaticism, at least for the game we saw the Panthers win, the fanaticism extended well beyond the game. It followed them out to their cars, and beyond.

THW: What did you think of the arena itself, including your seats?

JP: The facility was far beyond what I expected.

PP: It was very nice.

JP: Yes. I had no idea it would be such a high-quality facility, because I didn’t know hockey was such a major sport that a team could have its own facility of that caliber.

PP: You weren’t walking on top of one another.

JP: But the seats were too close together – the aisle [row] space was inadequate. Other than that, everything was great: The concessions were great and the room to move around the arena was good.

THW: After attending a Panthers game in person, are you inclined to go to another one?

PP: I’d go to another one in a minute!

JP: Yeah!

THW: With the Panthers heading into the playoffs, do you think you’ll watch them on television?

JP: I’ll check ’em out, absolutely.

PP: I’ll see if it’s as exciting on TV, but I don’t like watching football on TV, either.

As veteran observers know, nothing beats attending a hockey game in person. To introduce newcomers to the sport, television is a poor substitute for the in-arena experience. Winning (especially in dramatic come-from-behind fashion), while certainly helpful, isn’t enough. Getting newcomers into the building is key: If you can get ’em into the arena, you can get ’em hooked. That’s how you make new hockey fans in Florida.