In My Opinion | Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: 20 years later, Panthers are building anew

Florida Panthers right wing Kris Versteeg celebrates after scoring a goal in the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins at BB&T Center in Sunrise on Oct. 11, 2013.
Florida Panthers right wing Kris Versteeg celebrates after scoring a goal in the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins at BB&T Center in Sunrise on Oct. 11, 2013.
Joe Rimkus Jr. / Staff Photo

Memories came flooding like goals Friday night during the Panthers’ 6-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Florida’s home opener.

Suddenly, a season that had begun alarmingly, with three consecutive losses by a combined score of 16-3 following an initial win, seemed full of possibility, just as it had in October 1993, when the expansion franchise made its debut at Miami Arena.

Jonathan Huberdeau, 20, and 18-year-old Aleksander Barkov, who wasn’t even born when the Panthers came to life, contributed to the onslaught.

New blood and a new owner bring new hope to the Panthers, who celebrated the start of their 20th anniversary season in a Sun Belt city where cynics said hockey would never stick.

Bill Torrey watched from the coaches’ box way above the BB&T Center ice, still jumping out of his chair and threatening to burst open his bow tie even after all these years.

Torrey, a Montreal native, came to South Florida from New York to retire and play golf after building the expansion Islanders into a four-time Stanley Cup champion. Then H. Wayne Huizenga called, invited him to a Dolphins game and asked him whether an NHL team could succeed here.

“I told Mr. H. I believe you can sell hockey anywhere,” Torrey said. “The speed, the excitement, the occasional punch in the nose — you don’t have to understand the intricacies of the game to enjoy it.

“And we’ve got all these Northerners down here during most of the season.”

Huizenga, who had just created a baseball team called the Marlins, was sold. Torrey was given the task of creating hockey out of thin, damp air.

First, a name.

“Mrs. H., she loves animals, and the idea of save the Florida Panther, but she was worried if we had a naming contest we wouldn’t get the name we wanted,” Torrey recalled.

It wasn’t close, though, he said. Panthers won in a landslide.

Next, a uniform. On that, Torrey and Marti Huizenga had a difference of opinion. She wanted teal and black with a regal panther. Torrey pressed for red and his son Richard, an artist, drew a prototype of the aggressive, clawing cat.

“Mrs. H. really like that,” Torrey said.

Miami Arena needed a hockey dressing room, so one was built in six weeks. The ice was another matter. The arena had hosted figure skating shows, but hockey players require harder ice. In Miami, the top quarter inch of ice was too mushy.

“We discovered that the key was dehumidifiers,” Torrey said. “We went out and bought the two biggest ones we could find in the whole country. When we played Colorado in the Stanley Cup Finals, we had better ice than they did.”

And so, in five months, the NHL franchise went from gleam in the eyes of Huizenga and Torrey to reality.

“The big question mark was, who’s going to come?” said John DeMott, the team’s first public address announcer, who was also in attendance Friday for the 20-year reunion. “But the fans came, and they really fell in love with that first ragtag bunch of players.”

That bunch, led by captain Brian Skrudland, made it to the Cup finals in the club’s third year, when Scott Mellanby’s “rat trick” slapshot kill of a big, brown rodent outside the locker room began the rat-throwing phenomenon that remains one of the best pieces of local sports lore.

“The rats really liked the food inside Miami Arena,” Torrey said.

Since moving to their plush home in Sunrise, the Panthers have not fared so well. But the record playoff drought ended in 2012, and when Huizenga and the team’s fourth and newest owner, Vinnie Viola, dropped the ceremonial first puck Friday, there was a palpable sense of optimism.

“Mr. V. is the right owner at the right time,” Torrey said. “He is a self-made man who lives to compete.”

Torrey, who was the team’s first president and now serves as alternate governor, said Viola will invest in an upgraded scouting operation, where the Panthers have been deficient.

“We simply have to build a stronger product on the ice,” Torrey said.

Translation: A winner.

The promise was there for 18,584 fans to see. Barkov, the second-youngest player in last year’s draft, played at age 16 in Finland’s top pro league. Huberdeau has the touch of a natural.

“These kids have skills we haven’t had here in a while,” Torrey said. “And we’ve got more on our farm team.”

He pointed out that six players from Florida were picked in the amateur draft. He pointed to the proliferation of rinks and youth leagues in the area.

He pointed to the new $4.3 million scoreboard, nicknamed Big Red, that was kept busy Friday night.

Torrey, Skrudland, DeMott, Gord Murphy, Rob Niedermayer, Billy Lindsay, Craig Ramsay and announcer Randy Moller were the Panther originals present for the 20th rise of the curtain. To them, it never gets old.

Everything is new again.

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