The Florida Panthers’ past and present became one before the franchise kicked off the home opener of its 25th anniversary season on Thursday.
One by one, 14 players from the inaugural 1993-94 team walked a red carpet to center ice, forming a circle around the ceremonial anniversary emblem in the middle of the BB&T center rink.
They wore their red home jerseys. Brian Skrudland had the captain “C” on his left chest, just like he did back in the day.
“This is where it all started,” Rob Niedermayer, the Panthers’ first-ever draft pick, said earlier at a pregame party where he reflected on history 25 years in the making with teammates from that inaugural season.
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Moments later, the 2018-19 edition of the Panthers emerged one by one and stood alongside the greats that laid the franchise’s humble roots.
It provided a telling sign: A quarter-century later, hockey is still alive in South Florida, and the members of Florida Panthers’ past are optimistic about the Florida Panthers’ present and future.
“From the goalie on out, they’re a real good hockey team,” said John Vanbiesbrouck, the starting goalie from the inaugural team. “They’re going to compete every night.”
The early Panthers teams did just that. That inaugural team was a point short of a Stanley Cup Playoff berth. Two years later, the new team from South Florida made it to the Stanley Cup Finals but fell in four games to the Colorado Avalanche.
“It was great to have a good identity and to create a characteristic for the team,” Niedermayer said. “We wanted teams who came into Florida to know that they’re going to be in for a tough battle.”
This year’s Panthers have that same mindset. The team made a loud statement following the All-Star break and ended up with 96 points, the third-most in franchise history but not enough to overcome a slow start.
“Winning is most important,” Panthers president and CEO Matthew Caldwell said. “We believe very much in being in the community, but ultimately people want to see a winner, especially in South Florida.”
Especially in a sport that most South Floridians likely didn’t give a second thought to before the Panthers showed up.
Vanbiesbrouck remembers the team driving to various malls and chamber of commerce meetings before that 1993 season to inform the public about the team.
“We’ve come a long way since then,” he said. “There was a lot of risk-taking here. You see the fruits of the labor.”
Reality sunk in when players saw close to 200 people congregate outside their practices each day and hockey flags flying around the city.
“That was special,” Vanbiesbrouck said.
Fast forward to present day, and this year’s Panthers hope to make something special happen. The team hasn’t won a playoff series since that run to the finals in Year 3 and has only seen the postseason four times since that run.
The Panthers — past and present — are hoping that changes this year.
“As a person, as a fan of hockey, we’re grateful it’s still here and that they’re able to maintain it,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “You turn on a fan hat after a while.”