If you ever wanted to meet a professional hockey player, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport was the place to be on Tuesday.
With an extended Christmas break, a majority of the Florida Panthers took to the skies and headed north to see family and friends.
There were a few exceptions, of course, with some players deciding 85 degrees in South Florida works just fine for them.
“I may have to warm up my pool,” Tomas Fleischmann joked. “Rough, eh?”
Jonathan Huberdeau is from Montreal, but he had no reason to go back home.
Since he was a kid, the Huberdeau family has packed up its RV and headed to South Florida. The family sets up shop at a campground just west of Fort Lauderdale and celebrates the holidays in the sun.
“We would get out of school on Friday, and my dad would pick us up and we would start driving,” Huberdeau said.
“We would get here on the 22nd or 23rd and set up at the campground with all my cousins and friends. We would rent a room so we could cook and eat Christmas dinner together. We would open gifts outside, have breakfast, go to the beach. A lot of fun.”
Now that Huberdeau lives in South Florida and plays for the Panthers, the tradition has not only continued but has grown.
Instead of going to the annual Panthers-Canadiens game to root on le bleu-blanc-rouge, the Huberdeau clan heads to Sunrise to watch its new home team.
When Florida hosts Montreal on Tuesday, the Panthers will have quite a few French-speaking fans rooting for them.
“We used to make signs on those big boards trying to get onto French television,” said Huberdeau, who only missed Christmas in South Florida because he was playing for Team Canada in the World Juniors.
“It was fun to come here and I, of course, was rooting for Montreal at the time. Now it’s totally different. I had to get 80 tickets for that game. It should be a fun one.”
One tradition Huberdeau will miss with his family is their annual stop in Daytona Beach.
On the way south, Huberdeau’s father would pull the rig off I-95 and head toward the Daytona International Speedway.
Not far off the exit, they would see an orange sign and Christmas lights.
That meant chicken wings.
“We would always stop at Hooters; that was my dad’s surprise,” Huberdeau said, smiling.
“We would have some chicken wings, then get some sleep. Then we would get back on the road and head to Fort Lauderdale. That was always fun.”
DEEP AT FORWARD
With just about everyone on the Panthers healthy, Florida has a pair of extra forwards on the roster, giving coach Gerard Gallant some options.
In Saturday’s loss to the Penguins, Jimmy Hayes and Brandon Pirri were scratched. In Monday’s rematch, those two were in, and Fleischmann and Brad Boyes were out.
“There is definite in-house competition, which makes everyone better,” Pirri said before Saturday’s game. “For me, I have to produce when I have the opportunity to be in the lineup. I haven’t cashed in recently. I just have to do it.”
Hayes made sure Gallant will have second thoughts about sitting him again, scoring twice on Monday to give him nine goals, which is second on the team despite him only playing in 24 games.
The previous time Hayes was scratched in November, he followed that up with a goal in his next game.
“I don’t know if sitting him gets him going,” Gallant said, “or if it’s my stupidity in not playing him every game. He was big [Monday]. It was a big game for him. I’m real happy for him.”
▪ Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo moved into 12th place on the NHL list for career victories Monday, with his 386th win passing Mike Vernon, who preceded Luongo in Florida during the 1999-2000 season. But Luongo said these career milestones don’t mean much in the heat of a season.
“The standings is what is important to me right now,” Luongo said.
“I just want to keep accumulating wins as a team, stay in the hunt and hopefully grab one of those [playoff] spots.”
▪ The Panthers return from their break and will hold an open practice at the Coral Springs Iceden at 11 a.m. Saturday. The workout is free and open to the public. Florida’s next game is at 5 p.m. Sunday against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs.