Once upon a time the Florida Panthers were a legitimate, stable franchise rooting itself as an overachieving underdog.
An expansion team along with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 1993-94, Florida employed the legendary Roger Neilson as its first coach, while Craig Ramsay and Lindy Ruff served as his assistants.
The Panthers missed the playoffs by one point in each of their first two seasons, but after Neilson was replaced by Doug MacLean in 1995-96 the Panthers, who didn’t play the most exciting brand of hockey, snapped up the No. 4 slot in the post-season and went to the Cup final.
“We were one of the teams that would be criticized for bringing the defensive structure into the game that maybe slowed it down,” Scott Mellanby said. “It was a different kind of game. It does amaze me that we accomplished what we did.”
Through the first seven years of their existence, the Panthers had three playoff appearances to Anaheim’s two, plus one magical run. In the nine full seasons since 2000, the Panthers haven’t returned to the post-season, while the Ducks have two final appearances and one Cup thanks to attracting and building around stars such as Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Teemu Selanne.
The ‘Year of the Rat’ feels like it happened in a separate reality, as today’s Florida Panthers are equated to misery, failure and disarray. This year’s team attracts an average of 14,561 fans per game, filling the arena to 75.6 percent capacity, which ranks 26th in the league. They have tried gimmicks such as naming your own price for ducats and selling season tickets for a dollar, but this is a place where the beautiful weather beckons and even the star-studded Miami Heat have to launch a “Fan Up” promotion to keep their fans in the arena.
It was the perfect storm in ’96. It was the Year of the Rat in the Chinese Zodiac and Mellanby had his famous run in with a rodent that launched the rat-throwing craze – not to mention how he had lived in Boca Raton, which translated from Spanish means “mouse mouth.” It’s obviously true winning breeds excitement and there was plenty of that going around Miami 14 years ago.
“I’ll never forget the PA announcer coming on and saying, ‘Please don’t throw rubber rats on the ice or you’ll be evicted from the game,’ ” Mellanby said. “And then they had a shot of Marti Huizenga sitting in the third row behind the net, where the Huizenga’s had seats, after a goal and she was jumping up and down with a bag full of rats and she’s throwing the rats on the ice. This is the owner’s wife and meanwhile they’re saying they’ll eject you for throwing rats!”
While the Panthers found a way to win with what were essentially four checking lines, they had their fair share of stars in the years that followed. From Pavel Bure to Ed Jovanovski to even a point-producing Olli Jokinen immediately after the lockout, the Panthers’ sad tale is best summed up by the Roberto Luongo trade in 2006. Instead of building on success and creating a market, everything broke down.
“Those markets have great hockey fans, but there’s only so many of them so you have to have some success,” Mellanby said. “We as players want to see the team have success again because we’re proud of those early days and early seasons. I’d like to see them stay in Florida long term, but you can only sustain being out of the playoffs for so long.”
So far, this year’s team is below .500, but sits only three points out of a playoff position with at least one game in hand on all but one team in front of them. They are currently the only non-playoff team in the East to have scored more goals than they’ve allowed, thanks in large part to the remarkably consistent netminding of Tomas Vokoun.
And while the team is recognized for its whiffs at the draft and an iffy trade history, bringing in GM Dale Tallon was the best acquisition Florida has ever made. Tallon keyed in on the 2010 draft and selected three times in the first and second rounds. He was also able to deal Keith Ballard to Vancouver for a much better return (Steve Bernier, Michael Grabner and a first-rounder) than the franchise is used to getting.
It will be a few years before we see how these moves pan out and Tallon is surely just getting started in the process. But for the first time in the post-lockout NHL, Panthers fans can actually be optimistic the right management is in place and that competent transactions are taking place. The team still needs to find a way to win like it did in 1996 to attract fans and reacquire the rat madness from the days of yore, but when you watch the 2010-11 version of the Cats, their tenacity and push-back is surprising.
Can this year’s team overachieve once again? It’s a long shot, but if you tune into a game or get down to the BankAtlantic Center, you get the feeling it’s at least possible.
The Year of the Rat doesn’t come around again until 2020. Hopefully it doesn’t take the franchise that long to return to the post-season or it may be doing it in another city.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web editor. His blog appears Tuesdays only on THN.com.
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