When the Panthers play host to the Sabres at the BankAtlantic Center on Saturday night, the team will pay homage to their past … and to the future of hockey in South Florida.
Saturday afternoon, the Panthers will unveil the South Florida Hockey Den of Honor on the main concourse, a 4,000-square-foot tribute to not only the Panthers, but all hockey in the region.
Of course, until H. Wayne Huizenga was granted an NHL franchise in 1992, there wasn't much hockey to speak of in South Florida.
"What hockey was here was pretty sporadic,'' said Randy Moller, who joined the team in its second season and is the team's radio voice. "It took off once the NHL got here and grew by leaps and bounds.''
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The Panthers new den is an open air mini Hall of Fame.
Images of former and current players are part of artistic murals wrapping the walls. Highlights and archived footage play on numerous flat-screen TVs.
Fans can walk through the area … which spans four seating sections … and check out memorabilia in numerous cases.
Most of the area is dedicated to the Panthers' two decades here and the original players aren't the only ones being honored.
Former goalie Roberto Luongo has pieces of his equipment on display, as does former captain Olli Jokinen.
Conceptual jerseys from before the team played its first game are also on display, as are authentic and replica trophies won by the franchise over the years.
Each high school that plays hockey in South Florida has its jersey on display, and youth hockey has its own area, as well.
The team first wanted to honor its past players early last decade and set up a small trophy case on the lower level … called the Den of Honor.
That display was dismantled this summer and a kiosk for a discount computer chain was put in its place.
The new den is a major upgrade.
"This concept has been talked about for a while, and the one we had wasn't adequate,'' Moller said. "We wanted it to be bigger and better. We had less than 90 days to get this thing going, and it has been a labor of love. There have been hundreds of hours put into this. It is amazing.''
Original goalie John Vanbiesbrouck was one of the former players who was critical of the team at the time it was discovered the old den was taken down, but everyone seems pleased with the new area.
A good number of former players flew in to be part of the ceremonies. The players and coaches will attend both the Saturday game against the Sabres and Sunday's 5 p.m. game against the Lightning.
A few former players who live in the area … including broadcasters Bill Lindsay and Moller, as well as Peter Worrell, John Jakopin and Chris Wells … are expected to join former coach Doug MacLean, Mellanby, Brian Skrudland, Mike Hough and Paul Laus at the opening celebration.
Season ticket holders and those who bought special ticket packages will be part of meet-and-greets with the players throughout the weekend.
The original Panthers … and those who played on the team's improbable Stanley Cup Finals team in 1996 … will be in hot demand. As always.
"I find it hard to believe that I don't go through a week without someone mentioning 1996 or the rats. And I'm talking everywhere I go,'' said MacLean, who applied for the team's vacant general manager position last summer.
"That team kind of gripped the NHL. People still love that team. It's been a while, and it's amazing. I go to dinner here and people always bring it up. It's a neat experience. I'm anxious to see everyone. It's always nice to see them and see all the fans.''