The Florida Panthers won the offseason, an accomplishment for which you cannot raise a Stanley Cup, only hopes that you soon might.
The hockey club that opened its 23rd NHL season Thursday night at home has done everything right, in ways big and small, since the best regular season in franchise history ended prematurely last spring in a first-round playoff ouster.
Big: Spending almost $185 million to extend its core of rising young stars to long-term contracts, bolster its front office with a restructuring, and turn over a third of the roster with an emphasis on added speed.
Small: Rebooting the team’s image with new uniforms and a fresh logo. Forming a charitable foundation that will donate $25,000 per game to local good causes. Even the nice touch Thursday of honoring the late Marlins great Jose Fernandez before the Opening Night puck drop, players all skating in pregame warmups wearing No. 16 jerseys.
The timing of it all sets up. While the starting-over Heat move on without Dwyane Wade, the Marlins stagger from their decimating tragedy and the Dolphins continue to be the rut-stuck Dolphins, the Cats are advertised as the best team this franchise ever has put on ice. A window has flung open in the South Florida market. The fourth of South Florida’s major pro teams, the one forever consigned to the periphery, is in position to earn and enjoy its highest profile since that magical, rubber-rats strewn run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996.
All that is left is the minor matter of winning.
Of winning a lot.
Of winning in the postseason.
Of making a serious run at Lord Stanley’s silver chalice.
Of living up to expectations, which always have been modest for this club — but no longer are.
Thursday night marked a good start to the elevated expectations. It might have been a quick tapping of brakes before the bandwagon could even get rolling. Instead, the Cats won 2-1 in overtime over the New Jersey Devils on a close-range goal by Aleksander Barkov, who just turned 21 and is one of those young rising stars the club has locked up long-term. Florida had earlier squandered a 1-0 lead at the nearly sold-out Sunrise arena on a goal by new-addition center Jonathan Marchessault.
“It was easy to put in,” Barkov said afterward of his game winner, Finnish accent thick. “Wasn’t easy game, but was easy goal.”
It was not lost on Barkov that his team had honored Fernandez before the game with his jersey number. Barkov also wears number 16.
He was my favorite baseball player,” Barkov said.
The offseason moves to raise the Panthers’ profile, on and off the ice, started with the club’s relatively little-known owner, Vincent Viola, who bought the franchise in 2013 and begins his fourth season in charge.
For better or worse, Viola does not enjoy the imprint of fellow pro sports team owners Micky Arison of the Heat, Stephen Ross of the Dolphins or Jeffrey Loria of the Marlins. Part of that is hockey’s place in the market, but part of it is what has been Viola’s intentionally low profile. He’s been Punxsutawney Vinnie. The media was lucky if it saw him more than once a year. Rarely did he agree to interviews.
That’s changed, though. Viola has been more out front as an active owner, starting with the huge monetary commitment to the club’s future, and continuing with Thursday’s announcement of the new charitable foundation that would donate more than $5 million over the next five years to local organizations, with an emphasis on those that do good works for families, children and veterans.
Broward County and the city of Sunrise stepped up with financial inducements to assure the club’s long-term future here, and Viola is reciprocating.
“Our commitment is to give back more than we took,” said Viola, 60, Brooklyn-raised founder of Virtu Financial, which has led to his personal worth estimated at $2.2 billion. “This is a new era for the Florida Panthers, with new uniforms and new faces on the ice. But there’s only one mission: To win the Stanley Cup. It’s unfinished business.”
Viola, son of a truck driver, grew up with a military aesthetic. He was graduated from West Point, and served in the famed 101st Airborne Division. As a former chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange, he helped navigate that consortium through the trials of the 9/11 attacks. Philanthropy has been a big part of his life, though often without a lot of attention.
That’s not to say there isn’t a peacock side to him, too.
In 2013, around the time he was buying the Panthers, Viola put an Upper East Side townhouse on the market for $114 million. Variety.com at the time described it as “turgidly ornamental and giddily gaudy in its unrestrained grandiosity.”
That must have been the side of Viola’s personality that decided, after last season ended, to go all in on his team with that near-$200 million infusion, and accept the higher public profile that comes when a sports owner spends big, makes a public splash.
Sports team owners usually are regarded, ultimately, as their teams are. Arison, a behind-the-scenes owner, is admired because his Heat teams have won big. Ross and Loria, far more out front and visible, are disliked by many at least partly because their teams don’t make the playoffs.
It feels as if we are just getting to know Viola — that, after three seasons, he is just settling in, getting comfortable, getting started.
None of what he has done this offseason guarantees the Panthers will live up to the potential, or the investment.
It gives them a shot, though. For the first time in ages the Cats had a buzz about them, a tailwind entering a new season — and one justified in the opener as Barkov made that horn blast.
Vinnie Viola spent big to create the optimism, this momentum.
The rest is up to the guys on the skates.