Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Florida Panthers’ homecoming depressing, jarring to the senses

In this image made with a fisheye lens, Florida Panthers hockey fans watch game action against the New Jersey Devils during the first period of a NHL hockey game in Sunrise on Oct. 11, 2014.
In this image made with a fisheye lens, Florida Panthers hockey fans watch game action against the New Jersey Devils during the first period of a NHL hockey game in Sunrise on Oct. 11, 2014. AP

Home openers are not supposed to be sad.

They are supposed to be the opposite — celebrations. Rare, once-a-year treats. Fans are welcoming back their team for the first time. It’s exciting. Hope is high. Everything is fresh.

Right?

Saturday night’s Florida Panthers home debut in the Sunrise arena was one of the more depressing sights I have seen in four-plus decades chronicling sports in South Florida.

The Panthers — the franchise that last won an NHL playoff series in 1996 — reintroduced themselves to their fans with a numbingly bad 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils that left Florida 0-2 in the newborn season, after an 0-6 preseason.

The Cats were zombies on skates early in the game, down three goals fast, the evening pocked by scattered booing, but probably not enough.

“If you don’t come out to play in the first 10 [minutes],” as Cats captain Willie Mitchell put it, “you get your you-know-what handed to you.”

Said coach Gerard Gallant: “We didn’t compete hard enough to win.”

But wait.

I haven’t gotten to the sad part yet.

Remember when anticipation of a home opener, the “occasion” of it, made it a guaranteed tough ticket? Attendance might fall with the second game, but the home opener is different. Special. A sellout, for sure.

Right?

I cannot call Saturday’s Panthers “crowd” shocking because I’d been forewarned about the expected sharp drop in attendance this season. The club’s new ownership made a business decision to eliminate the freebies and discounts that had dubiously padded attendance in recent years. Still, even expecting it, the sight jarred the senses.

The Cats skated onto the ice to great fanfare for pregame warm-ups one hour before the opening puck drop … to a crowd literally numbering in the hundreds. When it finally filled in, the arena still was half full. Several upper sections had been curtained off, reducing capacity to begin with. But available seats were a sea of empty.

They announced the crowd as 11,419, the smallest gate in the franchise’s 21-season history for a home opener. That’s bad for any night, embarrassing to start your season.

“I think it’s about what we expected,” said new club president Rory Babich. “We’re taking the long-term view.”

The short-term view, the combination of a lopsided loss in a half-empty house — especially the latter — made you wonder about the future of professional hockey in South Florida, even as the new owners trust in their new business model.

I mean, this was a Saturday night against a major-market opponent. The Cats boasted the fresh-start feel you get when you have a new coach, Gallant, and when the NHL’s overall No. 1 draft pick, Aaron Ekblad, is making his home bow. Even without much marketing or advertising from the club, you would at least think the home opener would be impervious to any expected downturn in attendance.

And still the crowd mirrored the result in the head-shaking category.

They say winning cures all.

So when does that start, Panthers?

ESPN.com this week ranked Florida’s young prospects as fourth-best in the NHL, with Ekblad the newest piece. But the results must begin to show. The future must get here. “Promising” becomes a promise you need to keep.

It is easy to scoff at the insignificance of exhibition games if you are good. But if you are the Panthers, trying to convince people, an 0-6 preseason is a heavy yoke. It invites fans and would-be fans to think, “Here we go again,” before the “again” has even begun.

Then Florida lost its regular season opener, 3-2 at Tampa Bay. Doesn’t matter that it was a good effort or overtime so the Cats scrounged a point in the standings. Losing is losing.

Then came Saturday, and the wrong kind of avalanche. Florida trailed less than three minutes into the game. When it got to be 5-0 early in the second period, goaltender Roberto Luongo was pulled — tantamount to the mercy rule — in favor of backup Al Montoya. The result was all but set by the time Derek Mackenzie scored on a power-play for Florida late in the second period.

It is in this context of chronic losing that the new coach, the heroically named Gallant, enjoys no honeymoon. If the pattern seen in a winless preseason through to Saturday’s home opener continues, Gallant will rocket to the top of all of those betting odds predicting who will be the first coach fired.

Likewise, the ticking clock gradually becomes a little more audible for Dale Tallon, the general manager since 2010. His roster mix of veterans and youth must produce. So must Gallant, because Tallon and the Panthers, had they been willing, could have made a bigger splash by spending more and signing a more highly regarded coach such as ex-Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. That they didn’t is not Gallant’s fault, but is now his burden. And Tallon’s.

The tone of this column might seem harsh. After all, we are two games into an 82-game season. The idea of impatience is ludicrous. But the Panthers bear the weight of past failures in much the same way the modern-day Dolphins do.

I was in the old Miami Arena, almost 20 years ago, when John Vanbiesbrouck’s heroics were not enough and the four-year-old Cinderella Cats fell short in the Stanley Cup Finals.

And it is hard to believe this franchise has seldom made the playoffs since, and done nothing in them on those rare occasions.

Nearly two decades of not-good-enough from the Panthers leaves me tired of making excuses for them, tired of talking about promising prospects and better days that never seem to get here.

Based on Saturday’s home-opening crowd the fans seem a little tired, too.

Not so much those fans who still showed up as the many more who did not.

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