Greg Cote

In Joel Quenneville, Florida Panthers land their Pat Riley, their Don Shula | Opinion

Hockey is back in South Florida. The Florida Panthers are a player in this market again. The team is instantly relevant again. Playoffs? A franchise that has rarely been in them in its history is now thinking higher — Stanley Cup high.

All of that became true Monday because the Cats introduced as their new coach the most accomplished man and proven winner in his profession to join a local team since the Heat got Pat Riley in 1995.

Joel Quenneville — they call him Q — is that big in NHL circles, a three-time champion as a head coach, and the second-winningest coach in the sport’s history. It may not be a household name outside of hockey, but in it he is of a Bill Belichick-type stature.

It cannot be overstated how the Panthers have hit the lottery here, and what’s refreshing is, there were no attempts to modestly downplay anything about the magnitude of this get. After a parade of 15 previous coaches in 25 seasons, Florida finally has found its answer.

“We are going to win like never before. I’m giddy,” said general manager Dale Tallon, the fisherman who just landed the whale. “I’m not firing another coach. I’m 68. He’s 60. We’re going to ride away in the sunset together with a couple of Stanley Cups.”

It was suggested to Tallon that he’d just found his Riley, or his Don Shula.

“Exactly,” he said, smiling.

Quenneville won Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, 2013 and 2015 — largely with a roster Tallon had assembled as Chicago’s GM before being demoted in 2009 and joining Florida in 2010.

Tallon watched the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals at the home of former Panthers president Bill Torrey. The night the Cup was raised, the first person to call Tallon was Quenneville and some of the Blackhawks players Tallon had signed.

“I was crying ,” Tallon said. “I think it was fate that we would reunite and win a Cup together. The proudest I’ve ever been to be a Florida Panther is right now. It was meant to be.”

The moment the Blackhawks fired Quenneville 15 games into this season, Bob Boughner, the sitting Panthers coach, was fighting for his job, his future in South Florida. Because, suddenly, Tallon had not only a fallback option, but one he couldn’t have dreamed any better. Available was a proven winner, a three-time Cup champion, someone he’d worked with and knew well.

A coaching change in any sport is always a two-sided equation. It’s fine to say so-and-so deserved to be fired, but it doesn’t become a smart move unless and until you hire somebody better.

The Panthers just did. You could have argued that Boughner maybe deserved another season. But overwhelming that, and beyond all argument, is the fact Florida just made a major upgrade, going from an inexperienced guy in his first NHL head-coaching job to a Hall of Fame-bound man who has coached more victories in the league than anybody but Scotty Bowman.

Did the Dolphins do right in moving on from Adam Gase and hiring Brian Flores? Maybe. We’ll see.

But the move from Boughner to Quenneville. We know. It doesn’t guarantee he’ll deliver to Sunrise the elusive Stanley Cup trophy. It does mean the Panthers have given themselves a better chance of ultimate success than ever before.

Cats players showed up en masse at Quenneville’s introductory press conference (“I was flattered,” said the new coach), and the enthusiasm was palpable.

“It’s unreal,” said defenseman Keith Yandle. “They’ve set us up to win.”

Panthers winger Troy Brouwer, who played for Quenneville in Chicago, said, “Q has a presence. He’s got some weight in his name. It makes a statement to where this team wants to go.”

Center Vincent Trocheck: “we’ve been saying it, but this shows that now is the time.”

The Panthers are ripe to contend, with a young core led by budding superstar Aleksander Barkov (35 goals, 96 points) as well as Mike Hoffman (36 goals), Jonathan Huberdeau (30 goals). Evgenii Dadonov, Trocheck and Aaron EWkblad are other pieces to build with.

Barkov, the Cats’ captain at 23, knows the team has been talking about its potential and underachieving too long.

“Yeah, we should have done that a couple of years ago,” he said.

“Enough is enough,” as Huberdeau put it.

Quenneville, who wanted to join a team poised to make a run at a Stanley Cup, knows what he has inherited.

“We think the upside is huge,” he said, white pushbroom mustache a la Howard Schnellenberger. “There are some key ingredients here, and I don’t mind having high expectations. We are ready and sitting on ‘go’ to win.”

Quenneville can deliver more to this franchise than consistent winning. He can revitalize the fan base in a way we haven’t really seen or felt since that magical 1996 run to the Stanley Cup Finals vs. the Colorado Avalanche.

The Panthers new coach happened to be a Colorado assistant coach that year, his first NHL coaching job.

“The enthusiasm and passion were everywhere,” he remembers of the atmosphere Panthers fans brought to the old Miami Arena. “A lot of [rubber] rats being thrown on the ice that year. That was a good memory. The highlight of my life at the time was winning that Cup in ‘96.

He has won three more as head coach since. And he isn’t finished.

Dale Tallon called himself “giddy?” That should describe every Panthers fans right now, and every sports fan in South Florida longing for a winning team to cheer.

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