Dave Hyde: They’ve waited and waited for Panthers to succeed — and they’re loving this ride
This is who you’re happy for: the long-time usher by the penalty box; the voice of more than 1,800 Florida Panthers games; the bartender pouring drinks in their arena for 17 years and greeting a regular, as always, between Sections 101 and 102 during the Toronto series.
“Hi, Steve,’’ said Peter Ciocio, 67, who semi-retired from bartending in Long Island before moving to South Florida and who began at the Funky Buddha Panthers’ Tap Room concession stand.
“Hi there, Peter,’’ said Steve Hymes, a long-time Panthers fan.
This is where they became friends, standing on their respective sides of the counter at the arena before games, year after year, disappointing season after mostly disappointing season, until this Panthers’ run to the Eastern Conference finals.
“It’s so great,’’ Ciocio says. “I love this. This is more than just a job to me; I have a lot of friends. And everyone’s excited right now. It’s unbelievable.”
There are many who worked for years and waited for decades for this franchise to make the larger world notice. It has been 27 years since the Florida Panthers played this deep into a hockey spring, meaning this is a rare run, a special event, maybe even a career opus for the team, depending on where it ends.
All the talk of patience centers around the center, Aleksander Barkov, who was 8 months old the last time the Panthers were in an Eastern Conference final game. Now, at 28, he’s played for the franchise 10 often driftless years — until now.
“This is what you play for,’’ Barkov said earlier these playoffs. “It’s what we’ve wanted as an organization for years here.”
The beauty of sports means a run like this involves everyone from the Barkovs to the Savage family. Patrick, the father, has worked as an usher outside the penalty box, assuring no fan becomes too unruly, for as long as Barkov has been a Panther.
He points up to the corner, where his youngest daughter, Cassidy, works as usher. He pointed to another section where his wife worked for years as well.
He’s seen the half-empty arenas and emptier seasons, hope and front-office regimes come and go like players in and out of the box with a two-minute penalty. This isn’t what he talks about.
“It’s so alive now, so loud,’’ he said of the playoff atmosphere.
It’s not just louder around a winning team. It’s more fun. Randy Moller understands this better than anyone as the team’s longest-tenured employee.
Moller played for the Panthers in 1994-95, the final season of his 14-year NHL career. He didn’t make it out of training camp with the team the following year.
“I was a stay-at-home defenseman, and they told me to stay at home,’’ he said.
That was the 1995-96 Panthers season ending in the Stanley Cup finals. It made Moller’s career a trivia answer: The season after he was traded by Quebec (which became Colorado) and New York Rangers and cut by Panthers, they each went to the finals.
It also began Moller’s work with the team. He represented the organization in community, began radio and broadcast work in 1997 and watched the many valleys and occasional peaks since then in the franchise.
He’s been around for 17 Panthers coaches, 11 general managers and five owners.
“It may sound crazy, but I’ve always just wanted this team to succeed on the ice and off the ice,’’ he said. “And we’re getting there.”
From the start, Moller was joined by Steve Goldstein doing pregame and postgame work. Goldstein made the shift from local radio and TV to a full-time employee in 2005. He’s now is in his 16th season as the television play-by-play announcer.
“It’s great to see the market on fire for hockey. It’s been a long time coming,’’ Goldstein said.
On the other side of South Florida, the Miami Heat are in their seventh Eastern Conference finals in the past 13 years. They know this road. The Panthers have traveled it once, and it’s not just the players and coaches who appreciate it.
There are secret sharers all over the arena who have waited for a season like this. Ushers. Bartenders. Broadcast voices. As Ciocio said, “This is what makes work fun.”