David J. Neal

David J. Neal: Florida Panthers need wins to rebuild interest in franchise

Florida Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell scoops up a keepsake rat after a win against the New Jersey Devils in Sunrise on April 21, 2012.
Florida Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell scoops up a keepsake rat after a win against the New Jersey Devils in Sunrise on April 21, 2012. File photo

The Florida Panthers saved their place in South Florida 20 years ago with an one of the great non-sequitur seasons. It’s time for another franchise-saving season.

A good sign came Monday when they sent forward Lawson Crouse, picked 11th in the NHL Draft held last June in Sunrise, back to junior. That’s not an indictment of Crouse. It’s an indication that the Panthers’ depth on the top three lines exceeds the talented teen’s ability to help the Panthers win now.

Over the years, the Panthers felt they didn’t have that luxury. They’ve jammed their kids into filling adult holes, hoping they’ll expand to space without too much structural damage to their fundamental foundation. Most NHL first-round picks could use another year of heavy responsibility in junior and, sometimes, another year of copious minor-league ice time.

The Panthers did what desperate franchises do. This time, they didn’t, although they are in a desperate situation.

A local business that repeatedly fails eventually sits on infertile ground. Failure contaminates the soil of reputation. That goes for the neighborhood restaurant to the professional sports team.

Leagues don’t like to move teams, especially from large TV markets (combine Miami-Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach-Fort Pierce and you’d have a Top 10 market). Leagues want stability and expansion fees. But they will start over if necessary. Look at the NBA and Charlotte.

And, early last season, I began to wonder if the Panthers hadn’t done too much damage to this market by doing too little damage in the standings for too long. The Panthers have the worst 18-year stretch in NHL history as far as the thing that expands and solidifies fan bases, playoff appearances.

One playoff appearance plus one entire season lost to a lockout.

Granted, until the 1993-94 shift to a conference-based playoff system, getting into the NHL playoffs was about as hard as getting into Publix. No matter. No franchise, save the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Cubs, can stay that far from contending for this long and not suffer badly.

Youth hockey teams flourish. Adult leagues play. The occasional South Florida kid gets drafted. More will. The game grows. Ironically, the NHL franchise whose presence sparked that metamorphosis can’t take advantage of it.

The Panthers want relief on a lease that, frankly, has enough advantages for them that they’ve avoided being the Phoenix Coyotes. The Coyotes also began in an arena dominated by the local NBA team, made a 1970s-esque move to a state-of-the-art arena in the distant suburbs, but didn’t get revenue from other events held there.

Public opinion runs against them. The Panthers beat that before with the drug of victory.

In the wake of the 1994 NHL lockout and, even more so, the World Series-killing 1994 Major League Baseball players’ strike, the public viewed rich athletes and wealthy owners with distaste. New arenas not already in the process faced public anger.

The NHL told the Panthers before their first-ever home game they couldn’t stay in Miami Arena. The Panthers got ticket sales and part of another stream. No parking, no luxury box revenue. The Panthers actually had to give box holders free tickets.

Talks with the various local governments went nowhere as the 1995-96 season began. Before a late November game, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman discussed the situation as glumly as I’ve seen him at a press conference (and I covered the start of two NHL lockouts).

But what was happening out on the ice changed everything. Scott Mellanby killed a rat before the first home game, then scored two goals. All-Star goalie John Vanbiesbrouck called it a “rat trick.” Each home goal launched a shower of plastic rats.

And the goals came a-plenty. With new coach Doug MacLean placing a greater emphasis on offense, Mellanby and several teammates had career years. Rookies blossomed quickly. Unlikely defense pairs meshed in front of Vanbiesbrouck.

The Panthers stayed at or near the top of the Eastern Conference standings until early March. The Heat and Marlins still lacked identity. The Dolphins got run out of the playoffs. South Florida embraced the lunchpail Panthers such that supporting a new arena went from political suicide in November to politically expedient in February.

The arena got on the drawing board. The Panthers got all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. The groundbreaking ceremony for what’s now the BB&T Center was the afternoon of the 1996-97 home opener.

The Panthers would’ve been in Nashville or North Carolina that day without that 1995-96 season. They need something grandly positive again to start making this ground good for business again.

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