Florida Panthers return to the NHL playoffs after 12 long years

Eric Adelson
Yahoo! Sports

SUNRISE, Fla. – A five-gallon bucket. An ice cream container. A used Pepsi cup. A salad bowl. These are the things 76-year-old Paul Levy used to cobble together his mock Stanley Cup for the Panthers’ final pre-playoff practice on Thursday. He sprayed the whole thing silver and then beamed as he paraded the chalice into the Saveology.com Iceplex at around 10:30 in the morning. (And no, “saveology” is not the science of goaltending.) Levy placed the Cup in the first row, directly behind the Panthers net, where the players could see it. And he had a sign taped on it: “Your Names Here.”

Now, this wasn’t a work of art. Levy put it together in 90 minutes. Actually his grandson put it together. Similar fake Stanley Cups in places like Montreal and Vancouver are more ornate and likely devoid of Tupperware. But this mock Cup is actually perfect for the Florida Panthers: a team filled with old parts from other places that happen to fit very well together. John Madden is here, with his receding hairline. Ed Jovanovski is here, with his salt-and-pepper beard. Jose Theodore is here, with his … well, he doesn’t age, apparently. But you get the point. Three of the top four scorers are new to the team this season, including Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg. (Only nine players on the roster were on the team at the end of last year.) Put ‘em all together and dress ‘em in a new color and voila – the Stanley Cup playoffs are back in South Florida for the first time since 2000. That’s the longest drought in the history of the league.

We all hate the phrase, “It is what it is.” But that cliche has a certain charm with this team. They are what they are – a makeshift group of winners from other places that somehow found great chemistry and a legitimate chance to win a playoff series for the first time since 1996, when Dan Marino was still starting for the Dolphins (and Bernie Kosar was a backup). The Panthers have a rookie coach in Kevin Dineen and a bunch of guys pulled from colder places to spend the sunsets of their careers in Sunrise.

It’s vintage Florida, really.

Here, there’s “Where are you from?” followed by “Where are you from, originally?” Levy, for example, grew up in Brooklyn, cheering for Rangers greats like Emile ‘The Cat’ Francis and Rod Gilbert. He moved to Florida in 1974 and started a booming bikini business. “It was very nice,” he said, grinning. “All the models coming in…”

But despite the financial (and visual) riches, he missed hockey desperately. So he got season tickets when the Panthers opened shop. He grew to love the team, especially during the improbable 1996 run to the Cup final behind goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. And he stayed true during all the down years. (How down were they? Stephen Weiss, who has played for the Panthers since he was drafted by the team in 2001, was asked Thursday if there was ever a time when he wondered if the team would ever return to the postseason. He laughed and said, “Every year.”) Most fans are like Levy – originally fans of another team, but happy to adopt the Panthers. Think of the fandom as a winter hockey home.

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Ken Knox is the same way. He moved from Ohio to be a lawyer and got a season-ticket package. He goes to the games with his son, Dylan, and he’s delighted about this season. But what if the Panthers make it all the way to the final and face his childhood favorite Detroit Red Wings? “Sorry,” he said. Wings all the way.

But you know what? That’s OK. It’s fine that there are about as many longtime Florida Panthers fans as there are actual Florida panthers. That’s because the area where the team plays used to be farmland. This ain’t Hockeytown. It ain’t St. Catherine St. (Asked if there was a place where Panthers fans hang out, Weiss said, “Ha. No.”) People would rather be in sunshine than a freezing rink. They’d rather spend their disposable income on LeBron James than Wojtek Wolski. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be taken seriously, and it doesn’t mean this can’t be a special place in the spring. Jovanovski lights up when he talks about his rookie season here in ‘96, when they hung a banner from a bridge and threw plastic rats on the ice. That can happen again. Remember, Vanbiesbrouck was a Rangers retread when he got here in the early ‘90s. And hey, look at this: the rats are for sale again in the pro shop.

And there are benefits to playing in Florida, besides the weather (and the temptation for visiting opponents to spend a few too many hours on South Beach.) “It’s good to play for Florida if you play bad,” said winger Mikael Samuelsson. “Nobody bugs you.”

Madden was a little less tongue-in-cheek when he said, “You can really decompress here. In other places, like New Jersey, people take their work home with them. They let things fester. Here, you get to the rink the next day and you’re fresh.”

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There is a house money feel here – for both fans and players. After all, it was only last season when the team cut seven of its veterans and seemingly gave up on ever being relevant again. “That was a low point,” said Weiss. This season has been a Christmas present for everyone. There are more than three reporters covering the team this week. There are more than a handful of people watching practice now. Yes, Pittsburgh gets hundreds for skatearounds, but the great thing about the playoffs is that the atmosphere is less important. Not many teams have won the Stanley Cup because their home fans had perfect attendance.

“The two things I see in Stanley Cup contenders,” Madden said, “are that they’re unified, and they’re relentless. That’s what I see here.”

These guys have to be unified because they don’t know each other as well as most teams. They have to be relentless because they know they’re fighting against a losing culture. They know fan support can get a lot better, but they also know they have seen much worse. It is what it is, and it is a better-than-decent place to be on the eve of the playoffs.

Outside the practice rink on Thursday, some fans gathered for autographs near a Zamboni parked underneath a shade of palm trees. One of them, Kyle Graham, was 9 years old when the Panthers last won a playoff series. He’s 25 now.

“I thought it would be like this forever,” he said of the drought.

Graham isn’t quite a true believer because there’s not a track record of believability. But he’s hopeful. Mostly.

“I think we got ‘em in six,” he said. “Hopefully. I pray. Fingers crossed…

“I don’t want to wait again.”

He’d be 41 if he has to wait another 16 years. He laughs at this. Then he sighs.

So here goes. Panthers playoff hockey. Grab your discarded items lying around, pile ‘em up, put ‘em in a different color, and drop ‘em in a South Florida rink. Who knows? You might find the motley assortment stands pretty proud, and looks pretty convincing. Is it hastily arranged? Yeah. Is it good enough?

Just might be.

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