Before there were fans in the stands and plastic rats on the ice, before the old Miami Arena played host to the Stanley Cup Finals and before the BB&T Center ushered in hope of a playoff mainstay, there were malls. And schools. And parks.
And a white van.
That was the Florida Panthers’ grand marketing strategy in their inaugural year in 1993: pack some players in a white van and bring them to the people. During that week in early August, a group of a half-dozen players paraded around Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, talking to groups big and small, selling themselves and the game of hockey writ large.
One day, the van made its way to the Chamber of Commerce. It was hardly the heroes’ welcome to which some players had become accustomed.
“This guy came over to [forward Andrei Lomakin] with a business card that said something like, he was a real estate person and handing out his cards. And Andrei grabbed a card, signed it and gave it back to him,” John Vanbiesbrouck recalled last month. “He just didn’t understand what was going on.”
Vanbiesbrouck had played an exhibition game at Miami Arena a year prior, as a member of the New York Rangers, and — in a bit of irony — the ice melted in the crease in front of his net. When he was picked with the first selection in the expansion draft, Vanbiesbrouck couldn’t help but be skeptical.
“That’s kinda some of my thoughts were,” he said, " ‘Boy is this thing gonna work out? Is the ice really just gonna freeze there?' "
Much has changed, for better and worse, since 1993. The ice froze. Florida won immediately and defied the odds in building a team that made the Stanley Cup Finals in the 1995-96 season. That bred the kind of organic fanbase the NHL could’ve only hope for when it expanded to the South Florida market.
Nearly 30 years later, the 2020 Florida Panthers will play the New York Islanders in a five-game series, starting Aug. 1, in the qualifying round in Toronto, one of two hub cities for this year’s coronavirus-induced restart. They will do so having not won a playoff series since that storied 1995-96 Stanley Cup Finals run.
The altered format, which allowed them to qualify despite ending the suspended regular season in March on the outside of the playoff hunt, serves as a lifeline, but there is optimism from players and coaches that they’ll seize it.
As the Panthers close in on that series, though, they do so having yet to escape the shadow of the franchise’s storied beginnings. Nearly three decades later, those memories both shine as the franchise’s crowning moment and illuminate the chasm that has defined South Florida hockey since.
It’s a story about a group of misfits. A distinct playing style. A galvanized region. A winner.
It is also now a story about the fleeting nature of success and a desire to escape the prolonged disquiet of irrelevance.
Long before Las Vegas redefined what’s possible from an expansion side, the default expectation was that Florida would lose, early and often. Ottawa, added to the league in 1992, won just nine games in its inaugural season. San Jose, added to the league a year prior, lost 129 of 164 games over its first two seasons.
“As a player at 27 years old, picked up in expansion, my first thing was a little bit of devastation, in the sense that it was like ‘Oh my god, I’m almost out of the league now,' " said Scott Mellanby, then a forward, now an assistant general manager with the Montreal Canadiens. ...
“It was a bit of a — this is going to be a nightmare as far as trying to win.”
But general manager Bob Clarke purposefully pieced together a roster of veterans, prioritizing tenacity and passion. He brought on several players with playoff experience, including Vanbiesbrouck, who’d twice won the Vezina Trophy awarded to the best goaltender in the league.
As such, Clarke wanted to compete. And that wasn’t some faint hope.
When the team broke camp during its first season, shortly after finalizing the 25-man roster, they held a team meeting. Clarke walked in and made his intentions clear.
“He looked around the room, and he said, ‘We’re not gonna be a [expletive] doormat for anybody in this league,' " Mellanby recalled. “And he walked out of the room.”
Motivated by fear as much as hope, Florida was no doormat. Far from it. Spurred by coach Doug MacLean’s conservative trap defense scheme, the Panthers were immediately competitive. They allowed the fourth-fewest goals in the league and finished the year with 83 points, just one point shy of a playoff spot.
To that point, it was far and away the most successful season from an expansion side in league history.
“I think they thought we’d be an easy win,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We were never an easy win. And that’s how you earn respect. You’re diligent. You’re persistent. You give a punch, take a punch. But I think in that diligence, each and every game, that we earned respect.”
After a lockout limited the 1994-95 season to just 48 games, the Panthers came into the 1995-96 season with quiet confidence. Then they turned the volume up.
Florida didn’t lose in regulation until its 13th game. On the back of a balanced attack and stellar defense, the Panthers quickly vaulted to the top of the league.
One night, in a tale now codified into history, Mellanby spotted a rat moving across the locker room. He timed it perfectly on his stick, taking a slap shot to the rat, killing it. As legend goes, Mellanby’s stick still had fur on it when he scored two goals that night, a feat Vanbiesbrouck dubbed the “rat trick.”
At first, a few fans would toss plastic rats onto the ice only when Mellanby scored. By playoff time, showers of rats rained down with every goal. People stuffed rats in their clothing in order to smuggle them into the arena. Some colored players’ names and numbers on the plastic toys. A 1996 Sports Illustrated story quoted the then-vice president of business operations, Dean Jordan, who estimated the total cost of rats thrown on the ice to be $55,000.
The “rat pack,” as they became known, became the starlet of the league. In just their third year of existence, Florida advanced to the playoffs and took down Ray Bourque’s Boston Bruins, Eric Lindros’ Philadelphia Flyers and Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins, before Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche swept them in the Stanley Cup Finals.
In that season and the prior two full seasons combined, Mellanby, the team’s best statistical forward, tallied 162 total points. Lemieux had 161 in that year alone. The team’s 254 goals ranked just sixth in the Eastern Conference.
“Did we play beyond our means? Probably we did,” said winger Jody Hull. “But I think any time you talk to guys that have won the Cup or been there, it always takes those little extra things for yourself to get you over the edge. We were capable of doing that.”
But with the run to the Stanley Cup marking a precipitous rise; with the rat-infused fanbase excited about hockey; with the core of the team back for another year, it should have been a beginning. With the benefit of hindsight twenty-five years later, it instead marks something of an end.
“I think there was for sure greater expectations [after the run],” Vanbiesbrouck said. “I think we were able to maintain those expectations for a good period of time. Those types of things go for periods of time. They don’t last forever.”
General manager Dale Tallon sat steel-faced, covering his excitement underneath. It was April 2019, and newly-hired Joel Quenneville, the second-winningest coach in NHL history, was seated to his left, placards with their names folded on the table in front and a Florida Panthers backdrop behind.
Every player on the roster was in attendance.
“This is a new era,” Tallon said, “a new beginning.”
Six players on the 2020 Panthers’ roster weren’t alive during the 1995-96 Stanley Cup run. Few have any recollection of it.
The ensuing 25 years have been filled with more downs than ups, more changes than consistency, more hardship than triumph. The hiring of Quenneville did not mark the first hope of a new, prosperous era. In 1999-00, a new-look Panthers side marched to 98 points in the regular season, only to be swept by the New Jersey Devils, In 2011-12, a balanced Panthers team topped the Southeast Division, only to lose in a first-round Game 7 to Martin Brodeur and the Devils once again.
In 2015-16, a young, talent-laden team finished with a franchise-best 103 points. Young guns like Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau supplemented veteran production in Jaromir Jagr and Jussi Jokinen. Under Gerard Gallant, there was real hope — present and future.
That team lost a double-overtime heartbreaker in Game 6 to the New York Islanders, and Florida hasn’t been back to the playoffs since.
There are no ties left to the franchise’s pioneers, beyond the playoff series drought that mounts each year. This is a new team, with new executives, a new arena, and certainly a new playing style. Those are just memories.
“They need to create their own way, and they will,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “It will galvanize [the city].
And what they have this summer — fairly or unfairly — is all they can ask for: an opportunity. A five-game series against the Islanders to qualify, then a playoff series if they can do so. No rats. No malls. Not even any fans.
Just an opportunity.
“Every locker room I’ve been in on teams that have gone far in the playoffs, we started with the same conversation among the leadership. It was always, I’ll never forget, it was always: ‘Hey, we don’t know when we’re gonna get another chance to do this,’ said Brian Boyle, a forward with 114 games of Stanley Cup playoff experience. “You could be in the league a long time. You could be a young player who thinks you’re going to go to the playoffs every year.
“It doesn’t necessarily happen that way.”
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