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Lockout hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for Florida Panthers fans

Mike Weaver didn’t know what reaction the Panthers would get when the NHL’s 119-day lockout ended and his team returned to the ice.

Would the Panthers being out of sight mean that South Florida put them out of mind?

Based on last season’s transformation from last place to division champions, Weaver and the Panthers have been hoping for the best.

“It really was amazing this summer, and even during the lockout, how many people came up to me to talk hockey,” said Weaver, a defenseman starting his third season with the Panthers.

“I never experienced that here before. I think the energy is still there. Our fans are just waiting for an excuse to let it out. I know the Panthers fans are behind us. We want to pick up where we left off.”

It appears the momentum the Panthers had after winning the first division title in franchise history and playing an exciting opening playoff round against New Jersey is still there despite the long layoff.

No one is happier about that than the Panthers, a franchise many felt were one of two most hurt by the work stoppage. The other: The newly minted Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. Instead of feeding of the monster they created in May and June, the Kings have had to wait months to get things to get rolling again.

“We know it’s difficult for the fans because it’s been difficult on everyone,” said Cliff Viner, the Panthers managing general partner.

“Our fans wanted that momentum to continue. We wanted it continue because it was very good for business. To have it stop was tough on both sides.”

Business was booming for the NHL last year as it raked in a record $3.3 billion — which is about half what the NBA generated.

The Panthers said they were able to retain most of last year’s ticket holders and sponsors, but the lockout did slow down sales to new customers and clients.

The team’s new all-inclusive “Club Red” was scheduled to open just before hockey season was originally set to begin. But the lockout affected the team’s ability to sell that as well.

Panthers president Michael Yormark said many fans told him they would purchase memberships to the club — which cost $16,500 per year and include admission to every event in the building — once hockey got started. A spokesman said about 65 percent of memberships to Club Red have been sold.

On Saturday, the Panthers expect a capacity crowd at the 19,250-seat BB&T Center in Sunrise as Florida kicks off an abbreviated 2012-13 season against division rival Carolina.

According to the Panthers, it takes approximately 150 full-time staff and between 650 and 750 part-time employees to host a home game with responsibilities ranging from concessions, ushers and security — not including Sunrise police and fire who work games as well.

On Wednesday night, Weaver and his teammates were greeted by a standing-room-only crowd — many wearing the team’s red jersey — for a scrimmage at the team’s training facility in Coral Springs.

If the Panthers had been forgotten about during the work stoppage — lost in the South Florida fall and winter bustle of Heat, Dolphins and Hurricanes — it appears they are on the radar once again.

“We didn’t know how our fans would really react until we went on sale on Sunday for Saturday’s opener,” Yormark said. “I can tell you, sales exceeded our expectations. We will be sold out. People responded exactly the way we hoped.”

The third NHL work stoppage since the Panthers came into existence in 1993 started Sept. 16 and didn’t officially end until late last Saturday night when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed by players and owners.

Among the highlights of the deal was a 50-50 split of revenue between the teams and players. For the Panthers, a new revenue-sharing package — as well as a lower salary cap as the deal moves forward — should help the team become more economically viable.

During the lengthy negotiations, the players and the NHL stressed that having 30 healthy organizations — and not just 10 or 12 — was best for all parties.

So even though the Panthers don’t pull in major dollars with local TV and radio deals, they will continue to get financial help from big-market and Canadian teams that do.

Are the Panthers better off today than they were before the new CBA?

“Certainly that was the intention. And, yes, I think they will be,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.

“One of the primary objectives of these negotiations was to create an agreement that worked better for more teams. It will help our lower-revenue markets become high-revenue markets. We certainly are bullish on the Panthers’ ability to do that in South Florida.”

The owners pushed for a long-term deal with their players, something Yormark stressed was important for his work in marketing the Panthers. The two sides finally agreed to a 10-year pact that the owners can back out of in the eighth year. The players can end it in the ninth.

“We have to get our fans to fall back in love with us, to feel there is stability with our sport,” Yormark said. “The stability of a 10-year deal means we are able to go into the community and tell them they can love us and follow us because we have labor peace for the next decade. That’s huge.”

Pierre LeBrun covered the lockout for ESPN and Canada’s TSN and has seen the enthusiasm for the return of hockey as displayed in South Florida.

LeBrun warns, however, that while diehard hockey fans have run back to the game, casual fans who have been watching more basketball during the lockout might be harder to drag back to the game.

“So far you see lots of open practices, buildings filled with fans,’’ LeBrun said from Montreal, where he’s set to cover the Canadiens’ opener against Toronto.

“I’m interested in seeing what happens after this initial excitement wears down. I just think this is too early to judge. There are a lot of casual fans who were giving hockey a look and didn’t understand why there wasn’t a season. They moved on, spent their NHL money elsewhere. They may be lost for awhile.’’

The Panthers had missed the postseason an NHL-record 10 consecutive seasons over 11 years before last season. Apathy became part of the franchise fabric.

“It had been 11 years,” Viner said earlier this week. “We weren’t really relevant in the sports market here anymore. We had to prove we were making the right changes to the organization — both on and off the ice.”

In 2010, Viner had seen enough. He brought in Dale Tallon, the architect of Chicago’s Stanley Cup champion, to turn things around.

By the spring of 2012, the Panthers were back in the playoffs.

Fans packed the arena for the playoff series against the Devils, with the opening round going the maximum seven games. New Jersey finally knocked off the host Panthers 3-2 in the second overtime of that Game 7 on April 29.

“Part of their plan all along, the missing piece, was the performance on ice,’’ Daly said. “… The team having success and the fans responding verified what they were telling us: ‘If we can be competitive, this marketplace will respond.’ We are very happy.”

Said Viner: “This showed people we were doing things right.”

And now the Panthers go into a new season with high hopes. Florida is a target now as the team will hoist its first division championship banner in its history Saturday night in Sunrise.

Carolina, the opponent, has geared up for a run at the Panthers and is one of the favorites to knock Florida off its perch.

“At the end, it’s what you see on the ice,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “We play an entertaining game; we’re easy to like. I think the fans were really connected with us last year. Winning makes a big difference.”

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