As players shuffled off the ice after a recent weekday practice at the Panthers Ice Den in Coral Springs, a dozen or so fans clamored for autographs from their first-place Florida Panthers.
Defenseman Erik Gudbranson stopped to sign a few: a shirt for a young girl, a hat for a younger boy, a puck for a father.
This sort of attention comes with the territory.
Behind talented young players such as Gudbranson and stars such as Jaromir Jagr, the Panthers are gaining popularity as they head toward the playoffs, much like the celebrated Stanley Cup Finals team of 1996.
Attendance is up 33.5 percent from last season, and season ticket renewals are reportedly flowing in at four or five times last year’s rate.
Yet while Jagr continues to pour in goals, the Panthers might be getting just as much help from the men upstairs.
Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu, who manage Virtu Financial in New York, bought the team in 2013 for what’s believed to be less than $200 million. In the years since, they have repeatedly proved the value of ownership in professional sports.
“When we got here, people were like, ‘What are these two crazy guys from Wall Street, from New York, (doing) coming down to Florida?’” Cifu said.
“People were suspicious. ‘Are they gonna move the team? Are they carpetbaggers? They’re New Yorkers. They’re Wall Street guys. They’re up to something.’ And we were very consistent from Day One saying we have no agenda other than to win in South Florida. That’s all we wanted to do, believe us.”
Perhaps against the odds, their plan seems to be working.
Cifu was in a meeting when his phone rang. General manger Dale Tallon was on the line. The 2014 trade deadline, nearing.
He took the call, of course.
Tallon wanted to strike a deal with the Vancouver Canucks for Roberto Luongo, and Cifu didn’t think twice. So long as Sasha Barkov — then a rookie — wasn’t part of the deal, Cifu said to go ahead.
Cifu’s input is par for the course.
When he attended a recent game at the BB&T Center, he was up-to-date on the injury status of Barkov and Gudbranson, and he has been involved in contract negotiations for the team’s young players. But you won’t find Cifu encroaching on Tallon’s territory or coach Gerard Gallant’s space in the locker room.
“After the game they’ll come down and say hello to the players and all that,” Gallant said. “They let us do our job and they do their job.”
That tends to be the best approach to ownership, according to Dr. Dan Mason, who specializes in sports management at the University of Alberta.
The most successful owners are knowledgeable about their teams but choose to defer to more experienced hockey personnel, Mason said in a recent phone interview.
“They’re very interested and very concerned and very involved,” Mason said, “but at the same time they’re letting their people do their jobs. And they’re not jumping to conclusions.”
Mason points to the Ilitch family, which owns the Detroit Red Wings, as a prime example of good balance. Thus far, Cifu and Viola have operated in a similar fashion.
“That being said, I’m gonna take Dale [Tallon] to task,” Cifu said. “I’m gonna ask him 1,000 questions. I’m going to talk to him about players all the time. So we’re not passive, but we’re not going to inject our ego into a situation. We’re going to be active but rational about how we engage with the professionals we’ve hired to make those decisions.”
Twelve-year-old Daniel Cifu still has a few years to go until he’s named the Panthers general manager. His father, Doug, joked with reporters he has promised Daniel the job when he turns 22.
Should Daniel someday take over, he will have the BB&T Center to call home.
Despite all the contracts to young players, no commitment is larger than the one Broward County made last December when it voted to restructure the Panthers’ lease. The BB&T Center lease runs through 2028, though the team could opt-out in 2023 if the Panthers suffer certain financial losses.
Cifu, Viola and the Panthers will get $86 million in tourist tax money to help fix up and manage the arena.
And with that barrier gone, the Panthers’ owners can now ensure their players are comfortable.
“They have no problem giving us all the tools that are needed to be successful,” said Shawn Thornton, who said he has never played for a bad owner during his time with four different NHL teams. “We try and answer back by being a good professional team and showing up every single day.”
Some additions make sense in both the business and hockey realms. Viola and Cifu bought a majority stake in the Miami-based Eastern Airlines in 2014. A year later, the Panthers announced a lease with the airline for a customized 737-700 charter plane to take the team on the road.
When Luongo returned to Florida, where he played from 2000 to 2006, the new ownership’s impact wasn’t lost on him. In the past, Luongo said there was a focus on “trying to save money, whether it was cutting players or stuff like that.”
“It doesn’t necessarily lead to success,” Luongo said.
Cifu and Viola provided stability that wasn’t always present during former owner Cliff Viner’s time in charge. And while most remnants of that regime have been swept out, an occasional reminder comes up in conversation. As he scanned the arena during a late February game, Cifu brought up the old era in passing. The Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel concerts are great fun, Cifu said.
But that’s not why he purchased the team.
“It all begins and ends on the ice,” Cifu said. “I think the franchise had kind of got away from that. We didn’t buy an entertainment company. We bought a hockey company.”
A NEW DAY
If Cifu gets his way, this Florida Panthers’ resurgence is only just beginning. When the owners sat down in 2013 to devise a plan for the club, they decided to model the team after the Chicago Blackhawks. Cifu and Viola hoped to build a roster that resembled the 2010 Blackhawks squad.
The same Blackhawks that earned three Stanley Cups in six years.
The Panthers might be speeding up the Sawgrass Expressway in the same direction. Gudbranson, Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad and Alex Petrovic are just some of the young players pushing Florida toward success.
Oh, and there’s 20-year-old Barkov, who Cifu said sped up their five-year plan by a couple of years. As a result, Cifu will only be satisfied when the Panthers get 20,000 season-ticket holders and finish atop the NHL as often as those Windy City winners.
“There’s one standard: it’s a championship every season,” Cifu said. “Everything else is failure. That’s how Vinnie and I look at what we do on Wall Street. We look at that with every business. Our goal every year is to win the Stanley Cup. If we don’t, it’s not a successful season.”
Mason’s own barometer focuses far more on the business aspect of the franchise. Like many other Sun Belt franchises — which include teams like Tampa Bay, Carolina and Nashville — the Panthers’ viability depends on how fans react when the team sits far away from first place. In Mason’s eyes, “success would be measured by if you can be financially viable when your team is not that competitive.”
That hasn’t always been the case for the Panthers. When Cifu and Viola first took over the team, they hemorrhaged more than $110,000 per day, according to a 2014 CBC Sports report. In October 2014, the Panthers drew an all-time franchise low 7,311 fans for a Monday night game against the Ottawa Senators.
“When [Sun Belt franchises are] winning there is enough support to really sustain that franchise in the market,” Mason said. “But when that team isn’t winning, then that’s when you only have those diehard fans who are continuing to support the team.”
For now, however, the Panthers don’t have to worry about that alternate reality. Instead, Cifu is left looking toward a day when red sweaters line Las Olas Boulevard and the Panthers ride by with the Stanley Cup in tow.
That day will feel like a Chicago afternoon — just a little warmer.