What’s the story behind the rats at Florida Panther games? Here’s how it all started

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The Florida Panthers have advanced in the playoffs this season. And you know what that means?

It’s time to get your rats ready.

Rats and Panthers started going together in 1995-96. That was when a player saw a live one in the locker room and took care of it with his stick.

With the Panthers going on to the Stanley Cup Finals that season, the rat became the symbol of success. Fans tossed them on the ice after goals and victories.

So let’s look back at the early Panther success and the birth of the rat for luck and celebration.

From the Miami Herald archives:

A fans rat sticks to the glass in the second period of the playoff game between the Florida Panthers and the New Jersey Devils at Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise on April 13,2012.
A fans rat sticks to the glass in the second period of the playoff game between the Florida Panthers and the New Jersey Devils at Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise on April 13,2012.

Year of the rat

Published April 13, 2016

By Greg Cote

The remarkable lasting magic of the Year of the Rat owes some of its endurance to the dearth of anything else that might have come along to earn as cherished a place in the scrapbook of memories all fans keep. That we must admit, right? Twenty years ago a little and lightly regarded team stunned hockey by skating all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, and only three times since has that same franchise reached the playoffs again — not once getting past the first round.

Florida Panthers fans have been waiting since rat-blessed 1996 to see their team advance in the postseason again, and only six other teams – of the 122 in the four major sports – have made their fans wait longer.

That dearth is what makes 2016 such a perfect bookend for this anniversary. The current Panthers not only are in the playoffs again, but seem poised to do some damage in them, perhaps even with another run at Lord Stanley’s cup. Two decades ago it was the serendipity of rubber and plastic rats slapping onto the ice rink. Now the splendidly preposterous charm is the face of actor Kevin Spacey embossed on a lucky sweatshirt.

In life you can only have one first love, though, and so the Year of the Rat will not cede easily among diehard Panthers fans, especially those who were jammed into the old Miami Arena those nights in ’96 when the magic unfurled and the rats flew.

The NHL in the tropics was a novelty then, and the Panthers were only a few years old, many of their novice fans still trying to figure out what a blue-line violation was. The Year of the Rat was the seed, water and sun for an entire fan base.

“We didn’t win the Stanley Cup but we won the hearts of the fans — and that’s what matters the most,” as the old goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck puts it. “Sometimes people lose sight of why you do this. You do it for the fans.”

The lunchbucket Panthers finished third in their division that season and went on to slay giants in the playoffs, ousting Boston in five games, Philadelphia in six (two in overtime) and then Pittsburgh in seven. Florida trailed in each of those last two series, twice facing an elimination game against the mighty Penguins.

Florida was the talk of the league, its players at once charming underdogs and rock stars.

“Nobody thought we had the capability of doing it,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We love surprises, don’t we?”

The Cinderella Cats would be swept in the Finals by Colorado, but their place in Miami sports lore was secure.

“Everybody wants to talk about the rats, but what was special is a bunch of guys came together and gave it their all,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We didn’t have any superstars, just a bunch of ‘glue’ guys. But it was very special. We built an identity and a relationship with the fans.”

Part of that identity, though, clearly is embodied in the tale of the rat.

It’s merely symbolic, but so are a lot of things you hold dear. So is the wedding ring that never leaves your hand.

The rat never dies.

“It’s bizarre,” ’96 coach Doug MacLean said while chuckling when he visited March 12 as the club honored the 20th anniversary of its Cup finalists. “In Canada I still get asked, ‘Was that the rat team?’ It’s bizarre how it’s stayed.”

Current players know well that “rats on the ice,” a tradition again when the final buzzer sounds on a victorious home game, had its roots in 1996.

“It’s been passed down,” said current star Nick Bjugstad, who was a 3-year-old toddling around Blaine, Minnesota, that night when fate turned a real rodent into a heavenly totem. “It’s kind of like the game of Telephone, though. The story gets a little different each time.”

The true story:

It was Oct. 8, 1995, the night of the Panthers’ home opener, one night after the season had begun with a dispiriting 4-0 loss in New Jersey.

Minutes before a team of fully uniformed, stick-carrying players were to leave the dressing room to take the ice for the national anthem, a rat pelted across the carpet.

To Scott Mellanby, the speeding rodent — black in color — must have looked like a puck.

Instinct took over.

“Scotty laid his stick on the carpet and timed that rat into the wall,” team captain and eyewitness Brian Skrudland recalled.

Concrete Wall 1, Rat 0.

Mellanby used the same killing stick to score two goals that night and lead a 4-3 win over Calgary.

“A rat trick!” Vanbiesbrouck coined the phrase in the newspapers, and a legend was born, a dead rodent transmogrifying suddenly into something that would bond a team and its fans.

“It was an in-the-moment type of thing. Came to the top of my head,” the Beezer said. “It was just a fun comment. We were in such a good mood after that game!”

Debbie Parent, from MIAMI, packs up her Panther towels and rats in preparation for the Stanley Cup Finals game 2 between the Colorado Avalanche and the Florida Panthers to be held at The McNichols Arena in Denver. This photo was taken in Debbie Parent’s room at the Embassy Suites Hotel in downtown Denver.
Debbie Parent, from MIAMI, packs up her Panther towels and rats in preparation for the Stanley Cup Finals game 2 between the Colorado Avalanche and the Florida Panthers to be held at The McNichols Arena in Denver. This photo was taken in Debbie Parent’s room at the Embassy Suites Hotel in downtown Denver.
A rat flies onto the ice as the Florida Panthers celebrate their third goal in the third period as they defeat the New York Islanders in round 1, game 2 of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs in Sunrise, Florida, April 15, 2016.
A rat flies onto the ice as the Florida Panthers celebrate their third goal in the third period as they defeat the New York Islanders in round 1, game 2 of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs in Sunrise, Florida, April 15, 2016.
Thomas Cooper CEO/President of Gulfstream Airlines paints a rat on one of the companies planes, in support of the Florida Panthers in 1996.
Thomas Cooper CEO/President of Gulfstream Airlines paints a rat on one of the companies planes, in support of the Florida Panthers in 1996.

Before long, toy rats — more and more of them — peppered the ice after Panthers goals and wins.

By the playoffs, they were raining in the hundreds (leading to a subsequent NHL rule prohibiting them during games).

I recall during that ’96 playoff run seeing dozens of Panthers employees scurry onto the ice after home goals scooping thrown rats into white plastic pails. At least one employee used one of those giant push-broom squeegees like you see used to help move puddles from tennis courts. In the catacombs of the arena after games, you’d see huge clear plastic bags turned dark by the collected toy rats that filled them.

MacLean, 20 years later, still recalls a postgame report given him one night as a team employee trotted toward him.

“He says, ‘Hey, coach, 983 rats we picked up on the ice last night. I loved seeing them come!’ ”

Said Mellanby, rat killer, legend maker: “I had no idea that night that it would turn into what it turned into. It was a big part of my career I’ll never forget. It’s pretty cool people remember it and embrace it still.”

Maybe the current Panthers will equal or even surpass the ’96 bunch as the playoffs commence, led by the mysterious good luck of that “Spacey in Space” sweatshirt.

“We can’t wait till we’re a smaller part of the franchise lore, when there’s finally a Stanley Cup to celebrate,” as the old captain Skrudland put it. “But in the meantime, we’re that magical Cinderella story.”

Who says Panthers fans won’t be attending a championship parade on the 20th anniversary of unexpectedly coming so close.

If a fairy tale can star a dead rat, isn’t anything possible?

Rules of the rat

Published April 14, 2016

Florida Panthers tech-crew remove the rats on ice late in the third quarter as the Cats defeat the New York Islanders in round 1, game 2 of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, April 15, 2016.
Florida Panthers tech-crew remove the rats on ice late in the third quarter as the Cats defeat the New York Islanders in round 1, game 2 of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, April 15, 2016.

In 1996, the rules to throwing rats on the ice at a Florida Panthers game was simple: Toss ‘em after a goal. Since then, the NHL has changed the rules a bit. Here’s what you need to know for proper rat etiquette:

When can I throw my rat? Only after the game is complete and preferably following a Florida Panthers victory. It looks kind of weird when fans throw rats after a loss, although if it’s at the end of a hard-fought series, go ahead.

Where do I get a rat? At the rubber rat store, of course. OK, there’s no such place so you have to be creative. Some party supply stores still have them from Halloween as do some dollar stores. They can also be ordered in bulk through Amazon. The Panthers have threatened to sell rats for $20 at their gift shop, but as of Tuesday they were “only” $5.

Do I need to sneak my rats in? No, the rats are as connected to the team as its feline mascot Stanley C. Panther. The Panthers even added a rodent mascot named Viktor E. Rat, who runs around the arena with Stanley.

What if I get excited and throw my rat after a goal? The Panthers don’t like that. Too many rats could cost them a delay of game penalty as it did last month when the team gave out 10,000 commemorative rats before a game with the Devils. Florida was slapped with two delay of game penalties that night and is believed to be the first team to be so penalized by on-ice officials.

Do players like the rats? Apparently so. Some are known to scoop some up and bring them home after wins, while others like hitting them back into the stands with their stick.

The original rat killer

Published April 25, 2007

A toy rat sits in the Panthers locker room where Scott Mellanby killed a real rat with his stick before a game.
A toy rat sits in the Panthers locker room where Scott Mellanby killed a real rat with his stick before a game.

With one quick flick of his wrist, Scott Mellanby felled a rodent and became part of South Florida sports lore.

Mellanby, whose specialized brand of extermination fueled the Panthers’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals, announced his retirement from the NHL on Tuesday. Mellanby spent eight of his 21 seasons with the Panthers, but played the past two seasons with Atlanta. He said he would like to stay in the game in some capacity.

“It’s a sad day, but a good day,” Mellanby, 40, said on a conference call. “It’s been a good ride, and it’s time to do something else.”

The winger was one of a handful of veteran players the Panthers acquired before the franchise’s first season in 1993. Much older and experienced than a traditional expansion team, the Panthers flirted with the playoffs in their first two seasons before making it in their third.

On opening night 1995, a rat scurried across the locker room floor at Miami Arena; Mellanby slapped it up against the wall, killing it instantly. Mellanby then scored two goals in Florida’s 4-3 victory over Calgary, with goalie John Vanbiesbrouck dubbing Mellanby’s two goal, one rodent performance a “rat trick.”

Before long, Florida fans began flinging rubber rats onto the ice after each goal. The number of rubber toys increased as the team moved through the playoffs, eventually ending in the Stanley Cup Finals. Florida was swept by Colorado in that series, and the league banned the practice of tossing rats onto the ice.

“That’s something that is a great memory of mine,” said Mellanby, Florida’s captain from 1997 to 2001. “It became something neat for our team that season. That was unique to that team, unique for that time. My whole experience in Florida was great. . . . Florida was the right place at the right time in my career.”

Mellanby played in the Stanley Cup Finals twice, with Florida in 1996 and Philadelphia in 1987. Mellanby never got a chance to lift the Stanley Cup, something he said won’t haunt him.

“I don’t feel shortchanged,” he said. “I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a void in my career. It just never happened. . . . I have no regrets. It just wasn’t in the cards for me.”

After thinking about retiring after the 2005-06 season, Mellanby returned for one more season with the Thrashers. Mellanby captained the team to its first playoff berth, but Atlanta was swept out of the first round by the New York Rangers.

Mellanby’s career numbers: 364 goals and 476 assists in 1,431 regular-season games (tied for 17th all-time). He played in 136 playoff games, with 24 goals and 29 assists.

“It’s been a true honor and privilege to have him be part of our organization,” Atlanta general manager Don Waddell said. “What he’s done for our locker room and off the ice is pretty remarkable. It’ll stay with us for years to come.”

Plastic rats are carried off the ice after a Florida Panthers goal against Chicago on Oct. 17, 1995. After Scott Mellanby killed a rat in the Panthers locker room on opening night, fans have begun a new tradition - throwing rats onto the ice after each Panthers goal.
Plastic rats are carried off the ice after a Florida Panthers goal against Chicago on Oct. 17, 1995. After Scott Mellanby killed a rat in the Panthers locker room on opening night, fans have begun a new tradition - throwing rats onto the ice after each Panthers goal.