Greg Cote

Florida Panthers’ 1996 rat pack celebration a well-deserved honor

Video: Billy Lindsay, 1996 Florida Panthers playoff hero

Former Florida Panthers winger -- and current radio analyst -- Billy Lindsay reflects on the 20th anniversary of Florida's run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals.
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Former Florida Panthers winger -- and current radio analyst -- Billy Lindsay reflects on the 20th anniversary of Florida's run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals.

Brian Skrudland sat on his couch with the television on in northern Saskatchewan a little while back and discovered it was hard even in Canada to avoid hearing the Super Bowl being discussed.

One of the analysts mentioned how, in a Super Bowl or any sports championship, nobody ever talks about the loser.

Skrudland smiled to himself.

“What are you talking about, pal!?” he said to the TV.

Skrudland knew better, of course. He lived it. He was a part of the exception to that rule.

He was “Screwy,” the defense-first center of the 1995-96 Florida Panthers. He was a blue-collar NHL journeyman, then 32, who epitomized a hockey team willing to get its fingernails dirty. Skrudland wasn’t the team captain because he was the star. He was the team captain because he was the glue.

He was in the middle of it as a team of expansion-draft discards skated improbably into the Stanley Cup Finals and the hearts of South Florida.

The Panthers not only lost in the ’96 Finals, but they were swept in four games.

Didn’t matter.

Twenty years later that team remains beloved and worth celebrating, which is what the club was scheduled to do at Saturday night’s game here against Philadelphia as it marks the 20-year anniversary of that franchise apex.

“We can’t wait till we’re a smaller part of the franchise lore, when there’s finally a Stanley Cup to celebrate,” Skrudland said last week. “But in the meantime, we’re that magical Cinderella story.”

There was serendipity to it all.

A disparate collection of castoffs, in a sport foreign to many of us in Miami didn’t know that well, inspired by a fallen rat, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals.

Imagine …

It was Scott Mellanby, the night of Florida’s home opener on Oct. 8, 1995, who saw a rodent scurrying across the team’s dressing room in the old, intimate Miami Arena. He took action.

Slap shot!

Mellanby used his hockey stick to shoot the rat as if it were a puck, the rodent slamming against a concrete wall and perishing.

He used the same stick that night and scored two goals.

“Rat trick!” goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck later called it.

And the seed of Panthers history had been planted, a bizarre phenomenon born.

The next day a team trainer bought a plastic rat and placed it where the real one had died, with a small sign that read, “R.I.P.”

The rat would become that team’s mascot of sorts. Fans picked up the cue and began littering the ice with plastic and rubber rats after Panthers goals and victories.

“It really brought the fans and players together really tight,” said Ed Jovanovski, “Jovo Cop,” the big defenseman who was a 19-year-old rookie that season. “You could feel the bond. That’s something I cherish.”

As the Cats kept winning, the rats kept flying.

“It became a rallying point,” Skrudland said. “It gave us something lighthearted in a game we all took so seriously. We got such a kick out of all of those rats that came onto the ice.”

On the Chinese calendar and in South Florida, it was the Year of the Rat.

Mellanby, now 49 and assistant general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, led the Panthers with 32 goals that season, his best year in a long NHL career, and calls those days his most memorable.

“People still remind me of that,” he said of the most famous shot of his career. “’Hey you’re that rat guy!’ I have great memories of that, and of that team.”

That team clicked for a number of reasons.

Timing was one. South Florida was ready to cheer and be lifted by a pro sports team again. It was then 12 years since the Dolphins’ last Super Bowl appearance, the Heat was not yet winning big and neither were the young Marlins.

The makeup of that Panthers team also was a huge factor. It was a squad populated from the expansion draft, made up of other teams’ discards. Former stars in decline, journeymen, unproven youth — that was the odd quilt of the 1995-96 Panthers.

There was something. It was why that team scaled a mountain all way to the Finals. It is probably what you think of first if you recall those days fondly.

Beezer.

Goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck was a 32-year-old veteran during that run in ’96. The New York Rangers had discarded him after 10 seasons and in 1993 he had found a new start with, of all things, a newborn franchise in the tropics.

The new life for his career helped him heal from a personal tragedy.

His older brother, Frank, who helped mentor him in the art of goaltending, had committed suicide at age 36 on April 7, 1993. The pain remained raw when the Panthers selected a still-grieving John in the expansion draft just 10 weeks later.

“I have no answers to this day,” Vanbiesbrouck said of that tragedy.

The dramatic career shift and fresh start came at the right time. He went from being an aging discard in New York to a cornerstone for expansion Florida, the biggest and maybe only star on the team.

But ice hockey in Miami!?

“I remember everybody wondering how that was going to work out,” he said. “How hockey in Florida was going to work out.”

It had a rejuvenating effect on Vanbiesbrouck, who began playing as if he had rediscovered his prime. Three seasons later he led — in many ways carried — the Cats all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

That his older brother Frank wasn’t there to see it never left his mind as the Panthers embarked on that playoff run for the ages in the club’s first postseason appearance.

The team of others’ rejects coalesced to plow through the NHL establishment, defeating the star-laden Boston Bruins, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“If you looked at our team — that lunch-bucket type of makeup — you wouldn’t look at that team going through Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh,” Jovanovski said. “It was a little bit far-fetched.”

Florida trailed both the Flyers and Penguins before rallying. That Pittsburgh team featured a young Jaromir Jagr, now still going strong as the Cats’ marvel at 44.

“Mike Hough nailed Jagr and that was a real turning point,” Skrudland said, speaking as if it happened last week. “We were physical. We had to be. Our star power wasn’t there to a man, but there was commitment, sacrifice to one another. We had a work ethic that couldn’t be matched.”

But the Panthers were exhausted as the Finals began.

“We were all about a bunch of drowned rats at that point,” said Skrudland, maybe intending the pun, maybe not.

Yet the team had won fans’ hearts by then. It was almost as if it hardly mattered that Florida lost — and in a sweep — to the Colorado Avalanche.

The last game of that season was indicative of the team’s heart and work ethic. Florida trailed hopelessly in the series three games to none yet fought into triple-overtime in Game 4 before finally losing 1-0 in an epic, valorous performance by an exhausted Vanbiesbrouck.

“Johnny stood on his head,” said Skrudland, hockey parlance for the utmost compliment.

He was a small man, Vanbiesbrouck, generously listed at 5-8, but played bigger, and South Florida grew to love him.

“Bee-zer! Bee-zer!” went the thunderous chant that night.

Even in defeat, the arena sounded like celebration as the packed house stood to appreciatively cheer that triple-OT effort, that magical playoff run and that season — the Year of the Rat.

I recall the sound, the emotion of it, 20 years later. So does Skrudland.

“I never really heard that crowd very often. They were on the outside and my focus was on the ice,” he said. “But that night. Man alive! I remember thinking, ‘Has hockey ever arrived in South Florida!’ It was a proud moment.”

A few nights later, that arena filled yet again for a final thank you. Fans didn’t want to let go of that season. The magic of that team required a curtain call.

The Tampa Bay Lightning had been born one year earlier than the Panthers, but it was the Cats in 1996 who validated the still audacious idea that the NHL could make it in the tropics, in the Sunshine State, where ice was supposed to melt.

That season saw a spike in the team’s popularity that added to the momentum leading to the new arena in Sunrise.

Alas, the Panthers have made the playoffs only three times in the 18 seasons since and have not won a postseason series since ’96. But that drought figures to end this year as today’s Cats are poised to make the playoffs and likely advance in them — a nice bookend to Saturday’s celebration.

Twenty years later, the modern parallel of the rubber rat is the “Spacey In Space” sweatshirt the Panthers give to the player of the game. Its origin is more mysterious than that of the rat craze. Now, although rats-on-the-ice is a tradition revived, it is the disembodied head of actor Kevin Spacey depicted floating in the cosmos that silently and mystically aims the Cats toward the playoffs.

Believers in fate might wonder how the Panthers’ universe might have been altered had that frightened rodent not low-tailed it across the dressing room floor in late 1995. Would there have been anything to celebrate 20 years later?

Skrudland, the old captain, still laughs at what he saw first-hand — the shot that changed a franchise’s history.

It was moments before players were to skate onto the ice for the home opener. The room was filled with macho men in full uniform, standing tall on sharp blades and breathing testosterone.

Somebody shrieked.

“All Scotty did was lay his stick on the carpet, and Scotty timed that rat into the wall,” Skrudland said. “But you’ve never seen 20 grown men jump up and freak out over a six- or seven-inch animal!”

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