David J. Neal

David J. Neal: Florida Panthers showing signs of stability

Fans of Florida Panthers right wing Jaromir Jagr show their support as they watch players during warmups before the start of an NHL hockey game between the Florida Panthers and the Buffalo Sabres, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015 in Sunrise, Fla.
Fans of Florida Panthers right wing Jaromir Jagr show their support as they watch players during warmups before the start of an NHL hockey game between the Florida Panthers and the Buffalo Sabres, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015 in Sunrise, Fla. AP

What South Florida’s puckheads and potential puckheads want to see from this group of Panthers with so much youth and ability: signs of maturity. Do what you’re supposed to do. Handle responsibilities.

What worried puckheads want to see from the Panthers franchise off the ice: signs of stability, at least until the end of the BB&T Center lease in 2028.

Looking at Thursday, the Panthers got both. Not sorry, Quebec.

On the ice, the Panthers beat rebuilding Buffalo 3-2. Middle-aged Jaromir Jagr fired in two goals and got an assist when 20-year-old Aleksander Barkov popped in a rebound of a Jagr shot. That allowed an escape without consequences from a meandering middle 25 minutes during which the Sabres took the play after the Panthers controlled things early.

Off the ice, the Panthers presented Broward County a proposal for financial relief that’ll be discussed at Tuesday’s Broward County commission meeting. Both sides are making happy noises about it.

Owners Doug Cifu and Vinny Viola put future money where their “we’re-not-moving” mouth is. Broward will get a letter of credit from JP Morgan Chase that if the Panthers move or declare bankruptcy, the franchise must pay the county back the tourist tax money it will invest in the building. Also, if Cifu and Viola sell in the next 13 years, the county gets a cut of the profits.

Cifu’s background is as a corporate attorney. I don’t know him well. But from 22 years waking up next to a corporate attorney, I know they tend to carry the philosophy that the best deals are the ones everybody walks away with something they wanted, nobody walks away with everything they wanted and nobody feels the breeze of an uncovered backside.

The Panthers and Broward County are handcuffed to each other, a sports business version of The Defiant Ones.

Broward County needs the Panthers to keep the BB&T Center viable. The Panthers provide 43 events per season plus possible playoff dates. They’re the building’s primary tenant. There’s no real secondary tenant. The circus? Disney on Ice? Concerts for those at that awkward age of too old for South Beach, too young for Del Boca Vista?

You know what happens when a building’s primary tenant leaves without a strong secondary tenant? Go to the corner of Northwest 8th Street and Miami Avenue. Check out the overgrown space where once a Stanley Cup was won and an NBA All-Star Game was played.

OK, Miami Arena opened five years from outdated while the BB&T Center opened as state of the art in 1998. That’s a generation ago. Without the Panthers, you could start speculating about which church will buy the place.

Cifu and Viola need Broward County. Despite the income from the arena’s other events, the Panthers bottom line looks like a hemophiliac practiced juggling scalpels over the balance sheet.

They don’t want to move the franchise to, say, Quebec. Nor did they buy the Panthers to flip the franchise like a South Beach 4/4 condo. They’ve put money into the building. They bought a controlling interest in the revived Eastern Airlines to give the Panthers a comfy, cool new charter plane. (No small thing. I once rode on a Panthers Miami Air charter plane that pushed my knees into my ribcage. I also remember when another charter company the Panthers used went out of business with the team in the midst of a Western Canada swing).

And you don’t pull a Peter Luukko, who abruptly left the Flyers and Comcast-Spectacor in December 2013 after 30 years, out of retirement to run your organization with parking meter change. The Panthers payroll, which at one time would’ve barely paid for an NBA superstar, now sits at $65 million, close to the NHL’s $70 million salary cap.

They’ve given the county reason to do what the county doesn’t have a choice but to do: trust them. Work with them.

Now, it’s up to the Panthers on the ice to use that time to rebuild the shattered fan base, one win and two points at a time.

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