The news Friday of H. Wayne Huizenga’s death sent a shockwave around the South Florida sports community that he had a heavy hand in molding.
In addition to being the only entrepreneur to ever launch three Fortune 500 companies, Huizenga was the original owner of both the Miami Marlins and Florida Panthers, giving Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League their South Florida presence in 1993. He was also owned the Miami Dolphins from 1993 to 2009.
“He brought all of us to South Florida with the birth of the Marlins,” said Dave Dombrowski, the Marlins’ first general manager who led the franchise to its first World Series in 1997. “I have great memories being with him. He treated all of us in a first-class fashion. I enjoyed working for him and have enjoyed staying in contact with him and his family throughout the years.”
Former Marlins president David Samson tweeted Friday: “Love him or not, two facts are undeniable: his charitable character and his role in bringing major sports to South Florida.”
That role is most prominently seen today on the baseball field and at the hockey rink with the creation of the Marlins and the Panthers, franchises that started within six months of each other in 1993.
The Panthers celebrated the 25th anniversary of their inaugural season this year, which included the Panthers honoring Huizenga at a home game in January by retiring the No. 37 — Huizenga’s lucky number. The Panthers reached their lone Stanley Cup Final under his watch in 1996.
“I’m continually inspired by Wayne’s example, from his vision and civic-minded leadership, to his success of fostering an environment of on-ice excellence, which continues to have a shaping influence on every step we take in the South Florida community,” current Panthers owner Vinnie Viola said in a statement.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called Huizenga “an entrepreneurial visionary who possessed boundless energy, drive and imagination, a devotion to his community in South Florida and a passion for sports.”
“Those all were vividly reflected in his founding of the Florida Panthers,” he said.
The Miami Marlins — known as the Florida Marlins until 2011 — begin their 25th anniversary season on Thursday when they open the 2018 season against the Chicago Cubs.
“Today, we mourn the passing of the original Florida Marlin, Mr. H. Wayne Huizenga, who will be remembered as much for his contributions to South Florida professional sports as he was for his many charitable endeavors in the surrounding community,” the Marlins wrote in a statement.
Marlins third base coach Fredi Gonzalez, who was the manager from 2007-2010 and served as part of the Marlins’ inaugural minor-league coaching staff, said he was honored to work with Huizenga at the inception of the franchise.
"He always had those eyes,” Gonzalez said. “They burned with passion, with desire. ... I'm sure South Florida will miss him. There's not too many owners that had ownership in three major sports. Every time that I put this uniform on, I'll think of him."
ESPN’s Dan Le Batard heard the news of Huizenga’s death while on his radio show “The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz” and immediately shifted the course of his three-hour national show for a few minutes to remember the man who changed the South Florida sports scene.
"If you know anything about me or this show, you know this show cares deeply about Miami, and this guy — maybe some of you don't know who he is — he made sports matter in this town,” Le Batard said on his ESPN radio show Friday shortly after hearing the news. “Anything that you are listening to right now was flourished more by this man than anyone in the history of South Florida.”
As for his contributions to football, seven of the Dolphins’ last nine playoff appearances came under Huizenga’s ownership. Dan Marino played the end of his Hall of Fame career with Huizenga at the helm.
“A great man, one of the nicest individuals I have ever known,” tweeted former Dolphins head coach Jimmy Johnson, who second stint with Miami from 1996 to 1999 came under Huizenga’s ownership.
Marino and Keith Sims, a three-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman whose last three seasons with the Dolphins from 1995 to 1997 overlapped with the start of Huizenga’s ownership of the franchise, also passed along their condolences on Twitter.
“It was an honor to be part of the @MiamiDolphins when he owned the team,” Sims wrote. “He treated everyone with great respect and had such a passion to win.”
“Saddened to hear about the passing of my long-time friend Wayne Huizenga,” Marino wrote. “My thoughts and prayers are with the entire Huizenga family! #RIP”
Other members of the Dolphins’ past and present all passed along similar sentiments about Huizenga.
There’s current owner Stephen Ross: “Sports fans throughout the region owe him a debt of thanks for his stewardship of the Dolphins and for his vision and initiative to positively impact our community. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family during this difficult time.”
And Hall of Fame coach Don Shula: “As wonderful as he was as an owner, he was even better as a person. He was truly a great friend who showed compassion and caring for everyone he knew and many he didn’t, as evidenced by his wonderful work in the community. We lost a great family man, businessman, sportsman, philanthropist, and friend, but most of all, a great person.”
And defensive end Jason Taylor: “It is not a coincidence that every coach during his time as the Dolphins owner raved about working for him, and I can say from experience that as players, we felt the same way. Mr. H was class personified in the often cutthroat world of professional sports, and the mark he made on the Miami Dolphins, and the landscape of South Florida sports as a whole, can never be forgotten.”
And former Dolphins coach and current Alabama coach Nick Saban: “He was the classiest man I ever met, a fantastic friend, a tremendous leader and a world-class businessman. I had as much love and respect for Wayne as a man as anybody I’ve ever met other than my own father.”
And senior vice president Nat Moore: “Nobody cared more for this region, and its residents, than Wayne. It didn’t matter who you were or what you did – he treated everyone with dignity and respect. ... As great as his love for the Dolphins was, his love for South Florida was even greater and he will long be remembered for all he did for this community.”
The Dolphins posted an “in memorium” message on their main Twitter account with a photo of Huizenga hugging former Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington.
“Your kindness and generosity can be felt throughout South Florida,” the Dolphins wrote. “We will miss you Mr. H.”