John Vanbiesbrouck’s first taste of South Florida hockey came on Dec. 9, 1992, when he made 31 saves as his New York Rangers beat Tampa Bay 6-5 at Miami Arena.
The next day, the NHL made a surprise announcement and awarded H. Wayne Huizenga an NHL expansion team.
Ten months later, and Vanbiesbrouck was back at Miami Arena as a member of the new Florida Panthers after being snapped up with the first pick of the 1993 expansion draft.
“The Beezer” quickly became of the most popular athletes in South Florida, his exploits keeping the Panthers competitive during their formative years before leading them to the Stanley Cup Finals in just their third season.
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Like Dan Marino’s No. 13 in the stands at Sun Life Stadium, many fans still wear Vanbiesbrouck’s No. 34 to games.
“Twenty years go by so fast,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “I have grandkids now. … I love it, a part of me is always here because we did some special things. When you’re playing, you don’t know how far things will go, how lasting it will be. It’s really cool. I hope my grandkids get to see that sometime.”
On Tuesday, the grandfather who coined the term “Rat Trick” and helped create a rat-tossing sensation, was inducted with eight others — including Zach Thomas, Tony Dungy, Jeff Conine and Bennie Blades — into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame at a luncheon at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood.
“I know I’m grateful to be able to play the game that long and go in with this group,” said Thomas, the former Dolphins great. “It’s a great group. I’m grateful to be honored.”
Just the second hockey player in the Florida Hall — Tampa Bay’s 2004 Stanley Cup captain Dave Andreychuk is the other — Vanbiesbrouck says those five years he spent with the Panthers are ones he’ll always remember.
“It’s special,” said Vanbiesbrouck, now general manager of the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL junior league in Michigan.
“When we made our run in 1996, people threw rats. We didn’t win the Cup, but we won the fans over. That’s what counts.”
Vanbiesbrouck helped sell South Florida on hockey from the start.
Bill Torrey, the team’s first president, brought a small group of veteran players such as Vanbiesbrouck, Scott Mellanby and Brian Skrudland to town after the expansion draft to help introduce the game to the locals.
Selling the foreign sport of hockey during a South Florida August wasn’t the easiest thing to do.
“We drove around from South Miami to West Palm Beach,” Torrey said. “It’s 90-something degrees and these veteran NHL players are playing street hockey. It kind of brought them together. They had fun with it. They never complained.”
Vanbiesbrouck sees the problem the Panthers have drawing fans to the team’s second home — one he never played in as a member of the Panthers — in suburban Sunrise.
With not much success on the ice since the first few years, the franchise has foundered and lost its standing in the South Florida pecking order.
The Panthers were once as popular as any team in the region. Vanbiesbrouck hopes they get there once more.
The team and Broward County are currently negotiating a financial package that would guarantee the Panthers stay in Sunrise for the foreseeable future.
“I’m so happy they’re maintaining it here in South Florida,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “You have to keep it here. It’s growing the game. In the USHL, we have 12 players in our league from the state of Florida. … The roots being laid here are going a lot farther than people know. It’s really taking hold.”
Vanbiesbrouck and seven of the other Florida Hall of Fame inductees were hosted at the Panthers’ 1-0 victory over Tampa Bay on Monday (Dungy was the only one not there).
The other inductees are: Thomas (Dolphins), Conine (Marlins), Blades (Piper High/UM/Lions), Randy Ableman (UM diving coach), Paula Carter (bowling), Joey Cornblit (Jai-Alai) and late UM radio voice Sonny Hirsch.