Florida Panthers

Donald Trump has moved on since looking into buying the Florida Panthers

Donald Trump holds rally at the BB&T Center in Sunrise on August 10, 2016.
Donald Trump holds rally at the BB&T Center in Sunrise on August 10, 2016. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

On Friday afternoon, Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

Most big stories, and Trump’s political rise is definitely that, have ties to South Florida.

Trump is no different.

Although he made his mark as a New York real estate tycoon, Trump (as many New Yorkers do) eventually looked south.

He spent time during the winter months in Palm Beach.

He bought a little golf course in Doral and spent a few bucks fixing it up.

And, around 2000, Trump inquired about buying South Florida’s professional hockey team.

Bill Torrey, who has been with the Panthers since their inception in 1993, said recently that when Wayne Huizenga and Boca Resorts decided to sell the team in 1999, there were a number of suitors.

One was John Spano, who later ended up in prison after trying to swindle his way into owning the New York Islanders after his offer was rebuffed by Huizenga.

“Wayne didn’t like him at all,” Torrey said of Spano. “He smelled him a mile away.”

George Gillette, who later ended up with the Montreal Canadiens, was also interested in the Panthers.

And, of course, there was Donald Trump who had previously been interested in buying the Islanders when Torrey was there in the early 1990s.

Torrey met with Trump — whose biggest splash into professional sports was his short-lived ownership of the failed New Jersey Generals of the USFL — when the Islanders were available.

Things didn’t progress that far when it came to the Panthers, Torrey recalls.

A member of Trump’s organization contacted Torrey to talk about the Panthers, who, at that time were arguably South Florida’s No. 2 professional sports team behind the Dolphins.

The Panthers advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals in just their third season and by 2000, had advanced to the playoffs in three of the past five seasons and just moved into a plush new 20,000-seat arena on the edge of the Everglades.

These were the Panthers’ golden years and they didn’t last.

“Amongst the interested parties was the Trump organization,” Torrey said.

“Donald had owned the football team in the USFL and his brother Bob was one of our first season ticket holders on Long Island when we started.

“I don’t think they had much interest in the Panthers, but they did inquire.”

Although Torrey was directed to unload the Panthers under orders from the Boca Resorts board of directors — the hockey team was part of a publicly traded company whose stock was slipping — Huizenga told him to keep ownership local.

“I did the interviewing with the interested parties,” Torrey said, “and Wayne wasn’t going to sell to anyone outside of South Florida. The Trump folks inquired, but they knew we were trying to keep it local.”

The Miami Herald reported in 1999 that Huizenga was looking for $175 million for the team, the operational rights at the arena and the ice rink in Coral Springs which the team still uses as its training facility.

Neither Trump, Spano nor Gillette ended up with the Panthers.

Instead, the team announced on June 6, 2001, that it was sold for about $101 million to a group headed up by Alan Cohen, Bernie Kosar and Mike Maroone.

Huizenga kept a minority share of the team he founded.

“This really is our back yard and this really is something we care about,” Kosar said at the time. “We didn't want to see someone from out of South Florida take control of something in our neighborhood.”

In 2013, New York billionaire Vinnie Viola and partner Doug Cifu bought the team for what is believed to be around $180 million. Viola is Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of the Army.

Viola’s confirmation hearing is expected to come next month. According to Cifu, Trump has never brought up whatever interest he may have had in the Panthers to Viola.

Trump, meanwhile, has visited the Panthers’ home in Sunrise at least once.

In August, his campaign stopped in South Florida and he held a rally at BB&T Center.