Twenty years ago, fans tossed rubber rats onto the ice after Panthers goals.
Today, they continue to throw rats as part of their postgame celebrations, only some do so wearing blue-hooded sweatshirts with the image of actor Kevin Spacey on them.
It has been a long time coming, but the Panthers are the hottest team in the National Hockey League. They also could be the most fun.
The Panthers have won a franchise-record 10 consecutive games — longest in the NHL this season — and are 16-3 since Thanksgiving.
Not since Florida’s unexpected run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals, when the rubber-rat craze was a South Florida sensation, have the Panthers been so sought out.
“The number of phone interviews I’ve done the past two days is just incredible,” coach Gerard Gallant said.
The Panthers, who will have three players and Gallant at the All-Star Game on Jan. 31, have a five-point lead atop the Atlantic Division standings.
Behind the star power of ageless forward Jaromir Jagr and goalie Roberto Luongo and the potential of rising stars Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov and Nick Bjugstad, the Panthers are a team making waves not only in South Florida but also nationally.
The team has even attached itself to a Hollywood star. One of the postgame rituals borne of the winning streak is the awarding of the “SpaceyInSpace” sweatshirt — for some reason, it has an image of the Oscar-wining actor’s face floating in space — to the MVP after a win.
Jagr has worn it, as has Barkov and Luongo. Fourth-line center Derek MacKenzie got it after Tuesday’s win in Buffalo, New York.
Players are extremely tight-lipped about its meaning and origins, although it has been leaked that two-time Stanley Cup champ Shawn Thornton, brought in as a free agent last season, introduced it to the team.
Spacey himself responded to the team via Twitter, saying only he understood its meaning, then added “hope it continues to bring good luck!”
So far, it has.
Crowds are on an upswing. Last week’s 6-0 homestand was highlighted by the third-largest attendance number in history (20,289 vs. the New York Rangers) and averaged more than 16,000.
“I knew we had a good team,” Gallant said, “but I didn’t think we’d be in first place right now. I’m sure there aren’t many other people who thought we would, either.”
National outlets are taking notice, as Sports Illustrated has the Panthers ranked No. 1 in their weekly power rankings for the first time.
Jagr’s goal in Tuesday’s win at Buffalo was one of the lead highlights to ESPN’s SportsCenter.
“It’s exciting for the franchise to finally see them not just chug along but do some real damage,” said Doug MacLean, who coached the Panthers to the Finals in 1996, lives in Delray Beach and is a hockey analyst based in Toronto.
“That’s what you desperately need to create some energy in South Florida. We all know the history. This is good to see. The Panthers have taken some knocks over the years.”
Since the “glory years” of the Panthers’ expansion era, there hasn’t been much to celebrate.
The Panthers made their postseason debut in 1996, just three years into their existence.
Florida made the playoffs again in 1997 and 2000.
Years of mismanagement, poor hockey decisions and doing things on the cheap helped lead to an empty arena in Sunrise and a place at the bottom of the standings.
It wasn’t until general manager Dale Tallon was hired by the Panthers in 2010 that things have slowly begun to turn around.
Tallon was replaced by the Chicago Blackhawks in a front-office power play in 2009, but the team he built in Chicago won the Stanley Cup not long after he joined the Panthers.
Although Tallon’s name is on the Cup and he has a Chicago ring, it’s obvious he wants to leave his mark in South Florida.
“I’m not getting any younger and I want to win multiple Cups, so let’s get it done now,” said Tallon, 65, who signed a three-year extension last weekend.
“I’m not as old as I look. I feel really good and I feel really young and I’m ready to kick some you-know-what.”
The road hasn’t all been smooth in Tallon’s six years here, but his plan to build the core of his team through the draft — while adding veteran pieces such as Jagr, Luongo, Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell via trades or free agency — has put the Panthers in the position for which they’ve longed.
The Panthers’ off-ice fortunes were salvaged in 2013 when Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu bought the team from what seemed to be a desperate NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Although the team has been bleeding money for years, the new owners raised payroll, added hockey staff and allowed Tallon to go out and get some high-profile players.
“To Tallon’s credit, he surrounded his young kids with good veteran players,” said ESPN’s Craig Custance, who wrote that the Panthers are the best story in hockey.
“These aren’t just role players, but they are veteran stars in Jagr and Luongo. I think that’s why it’s working.”
Viola and Cifu recently reworked the team’s lease with Broward County, getting an infusion of cash in the form of tourist tax dollars in the amount of $86 million over the course of 13 years.
The money is earmarked to help keep BB&T Center up-to-date and helps ease the financial burden of the Panthers from running an arena in addition to a team.
Any talk of the team moving ended.
“I think it was a distraction,” Cifu said of relocation talk. “I was surprised because occasionally even players would ask me about it. I’ve been preaching from the top of the mountain since we bought this team that we were not moving. … Hopefully, once and for all, we have put it to bed.”
Said Luongo: “We saw this all starting last year. We knew coming into this season we had a pretty good team.”
This season started out with a 7-1 rout of the Flyers in front of a packed Sunrise arena, but the Panthers didn’t hit their stride until after Thanksgiving.
After winning four consecutive road games in Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville and Columbus, Ohio, the vibe around the team changed.
“We’re not lucky to win anymore,” Gallant said. “We’re a good team, we know we’re a good team. Everything is going well and people are noticing. People are talking about it. We’re just having fun.”
“We know it's going to end eventually, but we're enjoying it while it lasts.”
The usual suspects
The Panthers are three wins away from having one of the top four longest win streaks in NHL history.
March 9, 1993 - April 10, 1993
Jan. 21, 1982 - Feb. 20, 1982
Dec. 3, 1929 - Jan. 9, 1930
Feb. 23, 1971 - March 20, 1971
Oct. 19, 1985 - Nov. 17, 1985
Jan. 13, 2010 - Feb. 7, 2010