The hockey Hall of Famer didn’t win. The celebrity TV star didn’t win. Neither did the local junior hockey hotshot who showed up to BB&T Center in a suit.
The Panthers’ newest practice goalie will be either a 26-year-old Southwest Airlines employee or a 34-year-old owner of a paddleboard business after Dustin Smith and Bill Ruggiero were selected as finalists out of the Panthers’ “Goal of a Lifetime” contest Monday in Sunrise.
Smith and Ruggiero topped a field of 58 participants to earn the chance to compete in a shootout during the first intermission of Tuesday’s game against Montreal. The winner will skate as Florida’s practice goalie for the day.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Smith, a California native who played for Middle Tennessee State and now plays in rec leagues in Nashville. “It will be nerve-racking for sure.”
“It’s like a dream,” added Ruggiero, a former journeyman who said he hasn’t played a full season of hockey in five years.
He’s also a California native who now resides in Melbourne Beach.
“I’ll never forget the feeling of being on the ice and being around the team,” he said.
Smith and Ruggiero topped a crowded, heavily lauded and diverse field, which was selected from 1,500 applicants after the Panthers announced the sweepstakes after both Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya were injured earlier in the month.
Florida goalie coach Robb Tallas led two group workouts during which goalies from five states and Canada performed speed and agility drills, blocking drills and faced penalty shots from former Panthers.
What will be remembered as a day of huge moments for Smith and Ruggiero was littered with smaller but still thrilling moments for the other participants, who all banded together around one dream: to play NHL hockey, even for a split second in time.
They came in all shapes and sizes and full of stories.
There was Darcy Ramstead, who made the impromptu 2,993-mile trip from Blackfalds, Alberta, Canada, in honor of his mother, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.
There was Kira Hurley, a master’s student and goalie coach from Ontario who also happens to be a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hurley was inducted after she became the first female goaltender to register a point in a men’s professional game when she did so in 2009 as a member of the Evansville Icemen.
The was Hunter DePorter, a West Broward High School graduate and current goalie for the Palm Beach Hawks juniors team, who came dressed like the pro he’s working to be.
Then there was Linda Cohn, the 23-year veteran anchor for ESPN’s SportsCenter who made headlines by just showing up to support hockey.
“I hadn’t played in a long, long time, and when I saw this opportunity — the Florida Panthers turned a negative into a positive — I had to do it,” said Cohn, who played goalie at SUNY Oswego in New York. “I thought it would be a great idea.
“When I looked around, I saw all these fabulous goalies taking advantage of this opportunity to live and dream.”
Cohn showed impressive agility and a TV career’s worth of enthusiasm, at one point stopping 11 of 12 shots sent her way during the separate media-only workout.
“[Tallas] worked us hard,” Cohn said. “I mean, really hard.”
Forty-eight of the participants came from Florida. The goalies ranged in age from 18 (Drew Benedict) to 57 (Robert Thomas).
Many expressed gratitude to the Panthers for extending an opportunity to skate with current and former professional players. And all received free tickets to Tuesday’s game.
Only two will be on the ice. The strategy is simple.
“Stop the next puck,” Ruggiero said.