Mike Weaver didn’t know what reaction the Panthers would get when the NHL’s 119-day lockout ended and his team returned to the ice.
Would the Panthers being out of sight mean that South Florida put them out of mind?
Based on last season’s transformation from last place to division champions, Weaver and the Panthers have been hoping for the best.
“It really was amazing this summer, and even during the lockout, how many people came up to me to talk hockey,” said Weaver, a defenseman starting his third season with the Panthers.
“I never experienced that here before. I think the energy is still there. Our fans are just waiting for an excuse to let it out. I know the Panthers fans are behind us. We want to pick up where we left off.”
It appears the momentum the Panthers had after winning the first division title in franchise history and playing an exciting opening playoff round against New Jersey is still there despite the long layoff.
No one is happier about that than the Panthers, a franchise many felt were one of two most hurt by the work stoppage. The other: The newly minted Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. Instead of feeding of the monster they created in May and June, the Kings have had to wait months to get things to get rolling again.
“We know it’s difficult for the fans because it’s been difficult on everyone,” said Cliff Viner, the Panthers managing general partner.
“Our fans wanted that momentum to continue. We wanted it continue because it was very good for business. To have it stop was tough on both sides.”
Business was booming for the NHL last year as it raked in a record $3.3 billion — which is about half what the NBA generated.
The Panthers said they were able to retain most of last year’s ticket holders and sponsors, but the lockout did slow down sales to new customers and clients.
The team’s new all-inclusive “Club Red” was scheduled to open just before hockey season was originally set to begin. But the lockout affected the team’s ability to sell that as well.
Panthers president Michael Yormark said many fans told him they would purchase memberships to the club — which cost $16,500 per year and include admission to every event in the building — once hockey got started. A spokesman said about 65 percent of memberships to Club Red have been sold.
On Saturday, the Panthers expect a capacity crowd at the 19,250-seat BB&T Center in Sunrise as Florida kicks off an abbreviated 2012-13 season against division rival Carolina.
According to the Panthers, it takes approximately 150 full-time staff and between 650 and 750 part-time employees to host a home game with responsibilities ranging from concessions, ushers and security — not including Sunrise police and fire who work games as well.
On Wednesday night, Weaver and his teammates were greeted by a standing-room-only crowd — many wearing the team’s red jersey — for a scrimmage at the team’s training facility in Coral Springs.
If the Panthers had been forgotten about during the work stoppage — lost in the South Florida fall and winter bustle of Heat, Dolphins and Hurricanes — it appears they are on the radar once again.
“We didn’t know how our fans would really react until we went on sale on Sunday for Saturday’s opener,” Yormark said. “I can tell you, sales exceeded our expectations. We will be sold out. People responded exactly the way we hoped.”