The first game of an NHL season isn't as celebrated as Opening Day in baseball is, although the two definitely share some connections.
The fresh slate, the initial optimism for all, the return of a beloved pastime after months of wait is something the beginning of a hockey season brings out.
When the Panthers open their season Thursday night, a handful of players will be experience that moment for the first time.
And at least one will be soaking it all in, knowing it just may be his final opener as a player -- even if he doesn't play.
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As Shane Harper and Denis Malgin make their NHL debuts on opening night Thursday against the Devils, veteran forward Shawn Thornton will likely be in a suit watching from afar.
Brought back to the Panthers on a one-year deal after he thought last season may be his last, Thornton says he's enjoying every moment this year brings whether he's on the ice or in the press box as a healthy scratch.
"I'm lucky to still be around,'' the 39-year-old Thornton said Wednesday afternoon.
"You're starting a new season and that's always exciting to get going after the work you put in during the summer. Now it's for real, now it counts."
Harper makes his NHL debut at age 27, playing on a Florida fourth line Thornton regularly patrolled over the past two seasons.
Although Harper isn't the bruiser Thornton is, the two traveled a similar path to the NHL.
"It has been a journey," Harper said, "that's for sure."
Thornton spent 10 seasons (and over 600 games) toiling in the minor leagues before finally breaking through and becoming a full-timer with Anaheim in 2009 at the age of 29.
Harper has spent the past seven seasons in the minors, hoping to catch the eye of a team as he scored 77 goals in 340 AHL games.
"Good for him," Thornton said with a grin. "I think I was 26 when I got my first game in."
Florida coach Gerard Gallant said when the Panthers planned on calling Harper up last year, he was injured.
After a strong camp in which he wrested a roster spot away from the likes of the now-traded Connor Brickley, Paul Thompson and Kyle Rau, Harper is getting his shot at the bigs.
"The thing about the Panthers is they are fair here,'' said Harper, who said numerous family members are flying in from California to witness his milestone moment.
"I feel like they would give the spot to who they thought deserved it. They didn't have a lineup picked beforehand; I had a fair shot and just worked as hard as I could. I feel fortunate to have earned a spot."
As for Thornton, his playing time could be diminished this season but his voice in the locker room will not be.
The Panthers brought Thornton back not only for what he does on the ice, but off it as well.
A two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Ducks and Bruins, Thornton figured last year would be his last in the NHL.
Now that he has this one, well, he's going to make it count.
"I thought last year was going to be it, so this year probably is,'' Thornton said. "I'm just going to enjoy every day. Whether I'm playing or not, I'm going to show up, keep in shape and have fun with these guys. We have a great group. I enjoy every day with them. I'm going to embrace this."
▪ The Panthers will drop their 2015-16 Atlantic Division championship banner from the rafters before Thursday’s game. All fans in attendance will be given a replica banner as well as a schedule magnet for the upcoming season.
Fans will also receive a Jaromir Jagr bobblehead doll before Saturday’s game against Detroit.
UP NEXT: FLORIDA PANTHERS
▪ Thursday: New Jersey Devils, BB&T Center; 7:30 p.m. (FSFL)
▪ Saturday: Detroit Red Wings, BB&T Center; 7 p.m. (FSFL)
▪ Tuesday: at Tampa Bay, Amalie Arena; 7:30 (FSFL)