A number of Florida Panthers considered Jose Fernandez to be their friend.
On Thursday night, they honored him before their season opener.
The Panthers all wore identical, custom-made No. 16 jerseys during warmups before their opening night game against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night.
All of the jerseys had ‘Fernandez’ on the back.
Florida also had special helmet decals made up with a No. 16 set on a home plate outline with the Panthers color scheme of blue, red and gold.
The entire team signed one of the jerseys to present to Fernandez’s family; a number of Marlins’ team personnel were guests of the team as well.
“We’re going all in on this,” Panthers CEO Matt Caldwell said.
Fernandez, 24, died in a boat crash off the coast of Miami Beach last month.
A number of Florida players, including Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad and new captain Derek MacKenzie, were friends with Fernandez.
In February, before the start of spring training, Fernandez and a couple of his Miami teammates came to the Panthers’ game against the Penguins.
Fernandez dropped the ceremonial first puck then stayed through the entire game, rallying the crowd in his personalized Panthers jersey during Florida’s shootout victory. Fernandez then put that jersey on display in his locker at Marlins Park.
He later visited the team in the locker room and posed with goalie Al Montoya.
“When Jose came to visit us, there was a natural connection,” Caldwell said. “He’s such a great guy, he made everyone feel important. Our guys were extremely upset when they heard the news. They all wanted to do something.”
After Florida’s season ended, Fernandez and the Marlins invited a number of players to Marlins Park for a round of batting practice. Fernandez showed the Panthers around.
The Panthers, who held a moment of silence for Fernandez and Arnold Palmer before their exhibition opener, are not the first local team to honor Fernandez’s memory.
The Miami Hurricanes wore special decals on their helmets at Georgia Tech two games ago; on Tuesday, the Miami Heat wore special t-shirts during warmups with Fernandez’s No. 16 on them.
In the game following Fernandez’s death, the Marlins all wore Fernandez’s name and number in an emotional victory over the Mets. Miami owner Jeff Loria said the team will retire the number.
The Panthers also announced a new community initiative prior to Thursday’s game with owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu pledging $25,000 per home game to different charities and causes.
On Thursday, the recipient was Fernandez’s JDF16 Foundation. The Panthers donated $25,000 with their players adding an additional $10,000.
The Panthers plan on having their players autograph each individual jersey and auction them off — with proceeds going to Fernandez’s foundation.
Miami infielder Dee Gordon and pitcher Adam Conley accepted the check each wearing a Panthers’ special Fernandez jersey.
“Our guys rallied and really wanted to add their own money to this,” Cifu said. “Jose was a special guy and we have some special guys as well.”