When Kevin Spacey met the Panthers: Inside hockey's weirdest new relationship

Actor Kevin Spacey waves to the fans during an NHL hockey game between the Florida Panthers and the Detroit Red Wings in Sunrise, Fla., Saturday, March 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Florida Panthers co-owner Doug Cifu has seen Kevin Spacey as a criminal mastermind. He’s seen him as an angry grasshopper. And he’s seen him as a horrible boss.

As of last Saturday, Cifu has now officially seen Spacey as a Florida Panthers fan in the stands after the actor attended a game at BB&T Center.

“He’s an unbelievably varied and eclectic actor,” Cifu said about his team’s newest celebrity fan. “I think it’s a happy coincidence that this (association) happened at the same time that our playing and our performance on the ice was on an upswing.”

Spacey’s alliance with the Atlantic Division leading Panthers is arguably the most randomly enjoyable pop culture partnership in recent hockey memory. It started with Florida’s player of the game wearing a sweatshirt with the two-time Oscar winning actor’s head floating in space.

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This led to the organization selling mock ‘Spacey in Space’ sweatshirts for charity. It eventually culminated with Spacey going to a Panthers game last weekend, beaming after he was introduced to fans in front of a Panthers regular season record crowd of 20,817.

“There’s times we have sports and movie stars who are fans. David Boreanaz is a big time Flyers fans. We had a lot of personal fun with him but I don’t recall where we ever had a star that just, then again, randomly becomes a big part of the team and the buzz and the PR and the crowd,” said Panthers executive chairman Peter Luukko, a former longtime exec for the Philadelphia Flyers. “That’s my first time.”

Spacey is known as one of the top actors of the last 20 years starring in critically acclaimed films like “The Usual Suspects” along with “L.A. Confidential” and “American Beauty.”

He’s also shown enough range to voice over “A Bug’s Life” and play in the comedy “Horrible Bosses.”

But Spacey isn’t considered a ‘physical’ actor and is known for more cerebral roles. He’s also one of the more private actors in Hollywood, which adds to the mystery surrounding him.

Enter the Panthers, a team that was on the rise, but still looking for an identity since Cifu and Vincent Viola purchased the organization in 2013. 

In December people around the team noticed forward Aleksander Barkov wearing the ‘Spacey in Space’ sweatshirt after a win over the Montreal Canadiens. Spacey quickly jumped in on Twitter to respond to the gesture, but kept his message comically cryptic. At that point Spacey's association with the Panthers quickly went viral. 

The two sides have strengthened their relationship since then. Over 2,300 sweatshirts have been sold with proceeds going to the Florida Panthers Foundation and Kevin Spacey Foundation.

When Barkov signed his contract extension with the Panthers in late January, he thanked Spacey. Before Spacey showed up at the game, he teased his appearance on Twitter. 

Meanwhile the Panthers have kept the details of the connection behind closed doors, which has only enhanced the allure. In today’s day and age, getting over 20 hockey players along with coaches and management to stay completely quiet on a tongue in cheek topic is a tough task. But this has turned into a bonding point for the Panthers.  

“My first reaction was to call Shawn Thornton,” Cifu said. “He told me and he made me promise I wouldn’t tell anybody. He’s a lot bigger and stronger than me so he told me he’d beat me up if I told anybody. I was like, ‘you know what? That’s pretty cool.’ And the guys absolutely loved it.”

They also haven’t forced the issue on Spacey, and he hasn't pushed them for perks, which has kept the their relationship mostly organic.

“He thought it would be fun (to visit) and he came down on his own volition,” Cifu said. “It’s unbelievably random but I feel very blessed that he’s chosen us to be interested in.”

kevinspacey on Instagram
kevinspacey on Instagram

The whole ‘Spacey’ phenomena has given much-needed personality to the current Panthers organization.

The team has made the playoffs just four times since starting play in 1993-94 and much of their recent history has revolved around potential moves to Canada.

“I think it’s helped the franchise a lot because let’s be blunt. I’m talking to you about something positive,” Cifu said. “I’m not talking to you about moving to Quebec. Last year if you knew who I was, you would have called up and said, ‘is it true that you guys are packing up at the end of the season and moving to Quebec?'”

Part of the reason why Spacey has been a hit is because the team was in the middle of a 12-game winning streak around the time the sweatshirt became public. Spacey then became the team's unofficial good luck charm and a symbol for something positive with the Panthers.

“I think it’s grown from the locker room to the public and you can’t force something like that. It’s one of those things,” Luukko said.

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!