Jessica King couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
The 11-year-old native of Barbados had just participated in a Florida Panthers hockey clinic in her country in August. It was her first exposure to hockey, and she met Panthers defensemen Alex Petrovic and Ian McCoshen.
Recently retired player Shawn Thornton, now the Panthers’ VP of Business Operations, also took part in teaching hockey to the 20 or so kids who attended.
Soon after the clinic, Jessica and her mother Googled the Panthers players, and that’s when the shock hit. Jessica was stunned to see her favorite Panther — Petrovic, who had been so “nice” — had been photographed brawling in an NHL game, which of course is fairly common to those who know the sport.
Jessica, in all her innocence, quickly figured out that the Petrovic she knew couldn’t possibly be to blame.
“I think it was the other people’s fault,” King said softly.
Asked if she knew Petrovic’s number, Jessica correctly said “six,” and it was that devotion to the Panthers — along with her skating ability — that impressed Thornton, who invited the girl and her family to South Florida for a fuller hockey experience.
It was in that spirit that Jessica was at the BB&T Center on Thursday night, toting around a hockey stick that rivaled her diminutive height and watching her Panthers defeat the Winnipeg Jets 6-4.
The Panthers, partnering with JetBlue, picked up the tab for the King family’s expenses on the trip.
“Exposure,” Thornton said when asked about the Panthers’ aim in clinics such as the one in Barbados. “Every fan you get is a win, whether they’re in Finland or Iceland … Bermuda or Barbados.
“We’re happy to grow the game.”
The strategy is not new. The Panthers have held hockey clinics in the Caribbean for six straight years — Puerto Rico in 2012 and 2013, Bahamas in 2014, Dominican Republic in 2015 and Barbados in 2016 and 2017,
The Panthers are the NHL’s southern-most franchise, and they would love to carve out the Caribbean as an extension of what they see as their territory.
“Do we think we are going to get 20,000 people from Barbados to fill this place — probably not,” Thornton asked and answered. “But we’re creating knowledge of the game.”
Jessica symbolizes that increased knowledge. She learned to skate a year ago when her mother got a job at Icetopia, a newly built rink in Barbados that features a synthetic surface.
And Jessica liked skating so much that on August 22 — her 11th birthday — her parents told her they would be taking her to the Panthers clinic the very next day.
Jessica smiled for virtually the entire six-hour clinic, and when she was told the Panthers had invited her to South Florida, she was thrilled.
“I went home, and I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I was jumping up in the bed.”
On Wednesday, one night before the game against Winnipeg, Jessica skated on real ice for the first time in her life. Thornton was among those who worked with her at IceDen, the Panthers’ practice facility.
“It was very cold,” said Jessica, who had bright pink laces on her skates. “I didn’t expect it would be that cold.
“I had a lot fun. … I fell a lot of times.”
Petrovic, who had finished his Panthers practice earlier in the day at IceDen, waited at least 30 minutes for Jessica to arrive, just so he could greet his newest super fan.
Jessica was thrilled with the entire experience — skating on real ice, visiting with Petrovic and watching the Panthers beat Winnipeg.
But there was one other piece of joy for the pre-teen — the Sawgrass Mills mall across the street from the BB&T Center, where she bought a jacket, gloves, a bracelet, hair ruffles, unicorn horns and $25 worth of candy.
“The mall is huge,” Jessica beamed, “probably the same size as my country.”
Something painful: The Panthers lost perhaps their two most important players — goalie Roberto Luongo and center Aleksander Barkov — to injuries this week.
Luongo appeared to injure his right groin while making a right-leg kick save on Ryan Pulock of the Islanders on Monday. Luongo was carried off the ice by two trainers and replaced by James Reimer. Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle said: “It’s tough when anyone goes out, especially the backbone of your team.”
Similar sentiments were said about Barkov after he was hit in the jaw by the shoulder of Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba. Barkov missed Saturday night’s game against Colorado, but the Panthers hope to get him back when they start a five-game road trip Monday night at Detroit.
Something surprising: Florida’s Micheal Haley, a fourth-line left winger, scored the tiebreaking goal on a deflection of a Derek MacKenzie shot with 9:58 left in the third period as the Panthers beat Winnipeg 6-4 on Thursday. It was just Haley’s seventh goal in parts of eight NHL seasons.
Something slippery: The Panthers were the beneficiaries when Islanders captain John Tavares, one of the NHL’s superstars, fell down while skating alone on his shootout attempt on Monday. “Johnny slipped on a banana peel,” Islanders coach Doug Weight joked.
Look back: Islanders 5, Panthers 4 (shootout) on Monday; Panthers 6, Jets 4 on Thursday.
Look ahead: Monday at Detroit; Tuesday at Chicago; Thursday at Colorado; next Sunday, Panthers’ first trip to Las Vegas.