Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers get ready to fly first class

When the Panthers take off for Nashville to play their preseason opener Saturday afternoon, they will do so in a customized 737-700 jet.
When the Panthers take off for Nashville to play their preseason opener Saturday afternoon, they will do so in a customized 737-700 jet.

Eastern Airlines long has been known for a paint scheme on its planes in which the two-toned blue stripes resembles a hockey stick.

The newest jet in the reincarnation of the Eastern fleet will now ferry not only actual hockey sticks but hockey players across North America.

When the Panthers take off for Nashville to play their preseason opener Saturday afternoon, they will do so in a customized 737-700 jet.

The Eastern plane is emblazoned not only with its familiar logo and striping, but also the Panthers’ leaping cat logo on the tail fin as well as on the fuselage.

More importantly to the Panthers, the plane is equipped with 64 business-class seats, work tables and a training room, enabling players to get their bumps and bruises looked after while in flight.

“It’s a beautiful plane I know our players are going to enjoy,” general manager Dale Tallon said Thursday.

“It’s going to save on wear and tear on their bodies, and we’ll be able to do rehab right on the plane. It’s an advantage our team will have over others.”

The Panthers held an invitation-only party at the Sheltair Aviation hanger in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday afternoon to unveil the new aircraft.

The plane was supposed to leave Miami and make the short flight to Fort Lauderdale, where fire engines and their water cannons were in place to salute the plane as it made its way to the party.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, the plane had yet to receive FAA approval to take off and never left its home base in Miami.

The party went on without its guest of honor.

“Many of you have traveled and dealt with delays. Unfortunately, our plane isn’t going to make it,” team executive Peter Luukko said as pictures of the jet sitting in its hanger flashed on a screen behind him.

“But this is a great day for us, it really is. The ability to have our own plane as we compete in the NHL is so important to us.”

The jet was cleared Wednesday by the FAA and is expected to whisk the Panthers off to Nashville on Saturday.

The Panthers open their preseason with an exhibition doubleheader against the Predators on Sunday.

In the past, the Panthers flew planes chartered through Miami Air, which shuttles various professional teams that have included the likes of the Heat, Marlins and Toronto Blue Jays.

With Panthers owner Vinny Viola controlling a majority stake in the new Eastern Airlines, it was no surprise his hockey team would be the first major sports team to sign on with the charter airline.

The Panthers’ new plane is the third Eastern has acquired, with two more scheduled to join the fleet this year.

“We may charter it to others to create some revenue,” said Edward J. Wegel, Eastern’s president and CEO.

“But right now we’re focused on flying the Panthers and making sure all of preparations are focused on them and what they want. We hope once this plane is flying around the country and other teams see it, they’ll call us and see what we can do for them.”

Unlike in years past, however, the plane — when on the road with the Panthers — will remain with the Panthers. That allows the travel flexibility coach Gerard Gallant enjoyed while he was with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“This is real exciting because it makes things so much easier on you,” Gallant said. “The biggest thing was having familiarity with the crew and the pilots. You hate jumping on a plane and always seeing different people. Miami Air was perfect, a great chartering experience. But this is ours; our logo is on the plane. We’re always going to have this plane. We’ll never be late.”

The Panthers aren’t the first local team to lease its own custom airplane.

This spring, the Marlins announced they were leaving the world of commercial charter travel by leasing a custom-painted 767 equipped with 84 seats, a massage table, couches and card tables.

The company the baseball team contracted with to supply the plane apparently didn’t fulfill its obligations, and Marlins president David Samson said in June the team “may have to start over.”

Wegel said the Marlins flew Eastern a few times this year, and the airline would like to continue working with the Marlins as well as other professional teams.

Eastern’s headquarters at Miami International Airport is, after all, just a few miles from Marlins Park.

The Panthers will continue to fly out of Fort Lauderdale.

“This is great for Eastern because we’ll be flying into cities Eastern flew into in its first run as an airline,” Wegel said.

“It’s great to have the credibility of flying an NHL team.”

▪ Winger Jonathan Huberdeau isn’t expected to report to the opening of training camp on Thursday as the restricted free agent still hasn’t signed with the team.

Huberdeau was left off the Panthers’ training-camp roster released Wednesday.

The Panthers have offered Huberdeau a two-year contract. Huberdeau has played three seasons with the Panthers and is under team control for the next four.

Florida will hold its first practice of the season at 9:45 a.m. Friday at the IceDen in Coral Springs. Admission is free.

George Richards: 305-376-4995, @GeorgeRichards