Florida Panthers

Panthers’ Connor Brickley, Shawn Thornton have different reasons to celebrate

Flyers center Ryan White, left, fights Saturday with Panthers right wing Shawn Thornton, who might have been playing in the final season opener of his career.
Flyers center Ryan White, left, fights Saturday with Panthers right wing Shawn Thornton, who might have been playing in the final season opener of his career. AP

Saturday was a night of beginnings in Sunrise as it marked the start of a new season for the Panthers.

Saturday also saw the start of a new career as Connor Brickley made his NHL debut in front of dozens of friends and family members who made the trip from Boston to celebrate the event.

“A boy from Boston, that’s awesome,” former Bruin Shawn Thornton said. “I remember my first game, it was a long time ago. I’m excited for him.”

For Thornton, 38, Saturday was his ninth consecutive NHL season opener.

It also could be his last.

Thornton, signed through the end of this season, said before the game he had better enjoy Saturday’s opener “because, who knows? It may be my last. I need to make the most of it, drink it all in.”

If this is indeed Thornton’s final season, well, he probably will be working somewhere on opening night in 2016 as a member of the media. Thornton’s affable demeanor has all but assured him a spot in front of a camera or behind a radio microphone as soon as he decides to hang up his skates.

“This never gets old, no matter how many years you have in the league, because a lot of work goes into it,” said Thornton, who gave the crowd a charge with his fight with Ryan White late in the first period.

“This is what you think about when you’re a kid. No one plays street hockey thinking about game No. 43. It’s playoffs, Stanley Cups and opening nights [that] are a big deal. I felt like a big kid coming to the rink [Saturday].”

As for Brickley, Saturday’s start was a bit of a surprise as players and coaches had hinted Quinton Howden would get the call for the assignment.

Instead, it was Brickley — who arguably had the best training camp of any member of the Panthers — being introduced to the large crowd at Sunrise in his new red Florida sweater in the season opener.

“Everyone has told me to just enjoy it, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Brickley said. “I don’t think it has hit me. I’m just taking it as it comes.”

Added coach Gerard Gallant: “He deserves a shot to play. He came to camp and won a job by working hard.”

ODDS AND ENDS

▪ Willie Mitchell played in his second opener as the Panthers’ captain with Derek MacKenzie and Jussi Jokinen serving as alternates Saturday.

Howden, Steven Kampfer and Dylan Olsen were the healthy scratches.

▪ Rocco Grimaldi (ankle) took part in the morning skate and could be ready to come off the injured list soon.

George Richards: 305-376-4995, @GeorgeRichards

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