The Florida Panthers should have played a hockey game on Thursday night.
Instead, their players were dealing with something very few had any experience with.
As Hurricane Matthew churned toward South Florida on Thursday morning, the Panthers walked around their locker room at BB&T Center following the practice that replaced a preseason game against the Lightning not talking about where the party was that night but where the safest place to ride out the storm was.
“I’m going to Boca Raton,” one player yelled across the room.
Never miss a local story.
“Don’t go there,” another shouted. “Get to Miami.”
Although they make their homes and their living in South Florida, the Panthers are exclusively from somewhere else — places that might have to deal with a nor’easter or heavy snowfall but not tropical storms packing a punch such as Matthew.
Roberto Luongo was with the Panthers when Hurricane Wilma battered Broward County in 2005, although he wasn’t around for the actual storm.
When Wilma came east across the Everglades on Oct. 24 and began to wallop South Florida, Luongo and the Panthers were holding a practice at a suburban Pittsburgh rink as members of the media kept tabs on the storm in an adjacent sports bar.
After two games in Pennsylvania, the Panthers came back to South Florida to see the destruction they had heard about through the news — and their families who rode out the storm without them.
As was the case this week, the Panthers had to cancel games in 2005 because of a hurricane.
Luongo is joined by all in South Florida in hoping the damage of Matthew is nothing like Wilma.
“I’m a little worried but not too nervous because we made our preparations [Wednesday],” Luongo said.
“It was pretty scary [in 2005] when we landed and went home to debris in the streets and stuff like that. It’s not just the hurricane but the aftermath, the days without power and all that kind of stuff people need to be prepared for. You have to realize it’s not just the next 24, 36 hours, but the days after that. We need to be ready.”
The Panthers didn’t have as much prep time for the storm, either. The team didn’t get back in town until early Wednesday morning, following a pair of preseason games against the Dallas Stars held in Canada and Texas.
“This is new, we’ll see,” said Shawn Thornton, who said his home in Coral Springs is pretty set with gas grills and a water filtration system.
“We were running around — I’m sure everyone was — like our head was cut off [Wednesday]. There’s nothing you can do. Try and tell someone at Home Depot you were in Dallas and it wasn’t your fault; they don’t really care. I think we’re good.”
Coach Gerard Gallant said he would ride out the storm with his wife in their Fort Lauderdale condo, joking he was fully stocked with his favorite, Coke Zero.
“This is the biggest [storm] I’ve been involved with,” Gallant said. “Hopefully we’re prepared; we have plenty of peanut butter and jam. Lots of bread. Hopefully it’s not an issue.”
The Panthers plan to fly to New York on Friday morning for their preseason finale against New Jersey at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, although the team could fly out Saturday as well depending on what happens with Matthew.
“Let’s see what happens, I don’t know what’s going to happen with this storm,” Gallant said. “The game in West Point will be an important one, but again, we haven’t played that one either.”
Although many members of the team seemed a touch stressed by the oncoming storm, Jaromir Jagr all but laughed it away.
Seeing empty shelves at supermarkets and convenience stores led Jagr to joke the hurricane threat was a business conspiracy to sell goods.
Asked if he himself had stocked up, Jagr said he was content in having just the bare necessities.
“I’m OK,” Jagr said. “People have to survive for two weeks without water, I can go two days. I have just my body; I want to see how strong I am.”
Other local teams
▪ The Miami Hurricanes and Dolphins both continue plans to play home games at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens this weekend.
The No. 10 Hurricanes play host to rival Florida State on Saturday in a nationally televised game on ABC; the Dolphins entertain the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
The Dolphins took Thursday off because of the storm.
▪ As for the University of Florida’s home game Saturday against LSU, the Southeastern Conference announced Thursday afternoon that it has been postponed.
The decision came after nearly 48 hours worth of discussions between the two schools and the SEC.
The conference said in a release it is working to reschedule the game for later this season but there is no guarantee.
▪ The Miami Heat was one of the few local teams to get out of town before the storm, leaving for practice days in Houston on Wednesday night. The Heat plays Minnesota in a preseason game held in Kansas City on Saturday.
▪ The FIU football team left for its game against Texas-El Paso on Wednesday as well.
▪ The Charlotte-FAU football game scheduled for Saturday in Boca Raton is now tentatively planned to be played Sunday. FAU said it will assess after the storm clears if Sunday is a viable option to play.
▪ The Carolina Railhawks moved their game against the visiting Fort Lauderdale Strikers back a day to Sunday. That NASL game will be played in Raleigh, North Carolina.
▪ Racing at Gulfstream Park West — the former Calder Race Course — has been called off through Friday.