The Florida Panthers are back home after a lengthy road trip in Canada, but it is a far different place than the home they left 11 days earlier.
“I wish I was there for my family and neighbors and everybody that’s been affected by this,” team captain Derek MacKenzie had said while away. “I need to hug my family.”
From Pine Trails Park, where MacKenzie’s wife would take their two young children to play, the view has changed in a week from one of idyllic tranquility to a tableau that jars the mind and wrenches the heart. An open field has filled with 17 white wooden crosses, one for each victim in last week’s mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Fourteen students and three faculty were killed by a madman with an AR-15 assault weapon. The funerals are going on. Religious candles and loving notes surround the crosses. At the base of each is a box of tissues, a touching gesture insufficient for a community’s tears.
It is a field full of love and grief, and a sight no loved ones or community should ever have to bear.
The Panthers are our pro sports team closest, literally and emotionally, to the Stoneman Douglas tragedy. The hockey team’s practice rink in Coral Springs is a just few minutes from the school. The arena in Sunrise is 15 minutes away. MacKenzie is among a handful of Panthers who make their homes in Parkland in northwest Broward. So does veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo. Several front-office staffers are Douglas alumni.
“I hope we can get back to being the beautiful community we were,” says Luongo.
“It really hits home with us,” said the Cats’ Nick Bjugstad. “A lot of our guys live a couple of minutes from that school and have kids in that system. It is unexplainable. It makes you sick to your stomach. Schools should be the safest places in the world.
Thursday night the Panthers will play their first home game since Feb. 9, five days before the massacre. The game will follow a day-long blood drive outside the arena. There will be a moment of silence before the game, and a tribute video. Florida players will wear Douglas-logo helmet decals and MSD uniform patches for the remainder of this NHL season.
A limited number of MSD patches will be sold for $10, with 100 percent of proceeds going to the Stoneman Douglas Victims Fund at gofundme.com -- which already had raised nearly $2 million by Wednesday. The club also will collect donations from fans, and donate proceeds from a 50/50 raffle. The Panthers also plan additional initiatives to support Stoneman Douglas.
“We want to help any way we can,” said the team’s Aaron Ekblad.
The NHL also is getting involved. The league will match every dollar raised Thursday in fan donations, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is expected to be at the game.
The seasons and games go on, but a tragedy like this puts sports in its place, and those playing needn’t be told.
Returning home to a grieving South Florida “makes the hockey seem sort of minuscule,” as Panthers coach Bob Boughner put it.
One former Douglas High student plays in the NHL: Shayne Gostisbehere, a rising star with the Philadelphia Flyers. His grandparents live one mile from the school.
“These things keep happening, and it just sucks,” he told reporters up there. “Those are the hallways I walked at one time. I still can’t believe it.”
Gostisbehere did not know any of the student victims but remembered the assistant football coach, Aaron Feis, who died a hero trying to shield others.
Sports has stepped up in the wake of this tragedy, with teams and athletes locally and afar offering support, such as the Marlins and all MLB teams wearing Stoneman Douglas baseball caps on Friday. But they are not heroes in this, Feis is. He should win ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the next ESPY Awards.
Other heroes also have emerged from this tragedy. They are the Stoneman Douglas students who have organized next month’s March 24 “March To Save Our Lives” in Washington, D.C. And they are the other students joining the fight, such as the hundreds from West Boca High who marched the 12 miles to Parkland the other day, because, as one said, “We had to do something.”
The fight, of course, is about gun control, especially the sale of assault weapons. Our children are taking on the fight because the adults who should be leading it continue to shrink from the moral obligation. Just Tuesday -- less than one week after the atrocity -- our spineless state legislature rejected even considering a ban on semiautomatic guns. They did this even as dozens of Stoneman Douglas students traveled by bus to Tallahassee to meet with lawmakers.
This tragedy and the outraged activism of students has seemed to resonate and inspire. Celebrities George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey each have pledged to donate $500,000 to support the March To Save Our Lives.
But will this finally spur government action on assault weapons? When the killing of elementary school children at Sandy Hook did not? When the murder of 57 people at a concert in Las Vegas did not? When none of the other mass shootings have?
Said Stoneman Douglas senior student Diego Pfeiffer: “We are trying to make it so Douglas is the last one.”
What these kids are fighting for would stand as the ultimate tribute and legacy for the 17 lost souls represented by those 17 white, wooden crosses in a field near Pines Trail Park.