This is astounding and it feels impossible but it is the truth and it says much about the state of Miami sports at the moment:
The great hope of South Florida on the professional level is the one team that has accomplished the least for the longest -- the Florida Panthers.
The team (supposedly) likeliest to deliver our next championship parade is the one that never has. It is the hockey club that was last relevant here in a broad, meaningful way in (but who’s counting) 1996.
The thought occurred as the current Panthers opened their 25th NHL season Thursday night at the Sunrise arena, a silver season digging for gold.
Florida fell into an early 2-0 hole and kept clawing back but would lose, 5-4, to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The loss was magnified because Florida had also dropped its season opener in Tampa and has made a point of a fast start after the opposite last season.
The optimism ushering in this season (albeit slightly muted now) owes to the very high expectations for these Cats, seen as an ascending team that appears poised to coalesce and realize its upside in a big way,.
But it also says a lot about where the Dolphins, Heat and Marlins find themselves today.
The Dolphins are stuck in NFL mediocrity until they prove they have extracted themselves or perhaps until Tom Brady dies of natural causes.
The Heat (with or without Jimmy Butler) have lapsed into a just-OK malaise that engulfs so much of an NBA under the choke-hold of Golden State’s dominance.
The Marlins? Need we say? The starting-over Fish just finished with the worst record in the NL as we wait for the Derek Jeter group to show any sign it is willing to spend for a winning team.
Enter the Panthers, quietly, relative to football and basketball’s hold on the town.
We’ve been hearing for a few years now how good the Cats are supposed to be. We’ve been waiting.
The hint of a payoff showed itself in the second half of last season. After the All-Star break Florida was 25-8-2 -- 15 games over .500, one of the top marks league-wide. They missed the Stanley Cup playoffs by an agonizing one point.
That whetted the appetite for what has just begun, and left no doubt where this must end up. That’s not only in the playoffs, but deep into them.
“There’s no more excuses,” as second-year coach Bob Boughner put it. “I think we’ve turned a corner now. I think we’re ready now.”
They need to be. They’d better be. The belief comes with hesitation. Like the Dolphins and Marlins, the Panthers have lately let us down more than they’ve lifted us up.
Perhaps that’s why Thursday’s home-opening crowd at no time was full, with hundreds of empty seats scattered throughout. The Panthers must win back some of their own fans as well as South Florida at large.
Florida has missed the playoffs 17 of 21 seasons since that miracle, year-of-the-rat run to the Stanley Cup Finals in ‘96. They have not won a playoff series since then -- the longest drought in the NHL.
Opening night of the silver anniversary season saw the club welcome back 14 players from its inaugural 1993-94 team, many of whom helped fashion that surreal ‘96 season. That was nice. Fitting. Time for new memories, though. Like the Dolphins with their 1972-73 halcyon days and later with the Marino years, the Panthers cast back to the past largely for the absence of recent great stuff.
Nostalgia is fine.
It isn’t enough.
The Panthers coach’s four words are an imperative and what this budding season is all about for hockey in the tropics:
“There’s no more excuses.”