Greg Cote

Year of the Rat helped Florida Panthers win the hearts of fans

The remarkable lasting magic of the Year of the Rat owes some of its endurance to the dearth of anything else that might have come along to earn as cherished a place in the scrapbook of memories all fans keep. That we must admit, right? Twenty years ago a little and lightly regarded team stunned hockey by skating all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, and only three times since has that same franchise reached the playoffs again — not once getting past the first round.

Florida Panthers fans have been waiting since rat-blessed 1996 to see their team advance in the postseason again, and only six other teams – of the 122 in the four major sports – have made their fans wait longer.

That dearth is what makes 2016 such a perfect bookend for this anniversary. The current Panthers not only are in the playoffs again, but seem poised to do some damage in them, perhaps even with another run at Lord Stanley’s cup. Two decades ago it was the serendipity of rubber and plastic rats slapping onto the ice rink. Now the splendidly preposterous charm is the face of actor Kevin Spacey embossed on a lucky sweatshirt.

In life you can only have one first love, though, and so the Year of the Rat will not cede easily among diehard Panthers fans, especially those who were jammed into the old Miami Arena those nights in ’96 when the magic unfurled and the rats flew.

The NHL in the tropics was a novelty then, and the Panthers were only a few years old, many of their novice fans still trying to figure out what a blue-line violation was. The Year of the Rat was the seed, water and sun for an entire fan base.

“We didn’t win the Stanley Cup but we won the hearts of the fans — and that’s what matters the most,” as the old goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck puts it. “Sometimes people lose sight of why you do this. You do it for the fans.”

The lunchbucket Panthers finished third in their division that season and went on to slay giants in the playoffs, ousting Boston in five games, Philadelphia in six (two in overtime) and then Pittsburgh in seven. Florida trailed in each of those last two series, twice facing an elimination game against the mighty Penguins.

Florida was the talk of the league, its players at once charming underdogs and rock stars.

“Nobody thought we had the capability of doing it,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We love surprises, don’t we?”

The Cinderella Cats would be swept in the Finals by Colorado, but their place in Miami sports lore was secure.

“Everybody wants to talk about the rats, but what was special is a bunch of guys came together and gave it their all,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We didn’t have any superstars, just a bunch of ‘glue’ guys. But it was very special. We built an identity and a relationship with the fans.”

Part of that identity, though, clearly is embodied in the tale of the rat.

It’s merely symbolic, but so are a lot of things you hold dear. So is the wedding ring that never leaves your hand.

The rat never dies.

“It’s bizarre,” ’96 coach Doug MacLean said while chuckling when he visited March 12 as the club honored the 20th anniversary of its Cup finalists. “In Canada I still get asked, ‘Was that the rat team?’ It’s bizarre how it’s stayed.”

Current players know well that “rats on the ice,” a tradition again when the final buzzer sounds on a victorious home game, had its roots in 1996.

“It’s been passed down,” said current star Nick Bjugstad, who was a 3-year-old toddling around Blaine, Minnesota, that night when fate turned a real rodent into a heavenly totem. “It’s kind of like the game of Telephone, though. The story gets a little different each time.”

The true story:

It was Oct. 8, 1995, the night of the Panthers’ home opener, one night after the season had begun with a dispiriting 4-0 loss in New Jersey.

Minutes before a team of fully uniformed, stick-carrying players were to leave the dressing room to take the ice for the national anthem, a rat pelted across the carpet.

To Scott Mellanby, the speeding rodent — black in color — must have looked like a puck.

Instinct took over.

“Scotty laid his stick on the carpet and timed that rat into the wall,” team captain and eyewitness Brian Skrudland recalled.

Concrete Wall 1, Rat 0.

Mellanby used the same killing stick to score two goals that night and lead a 4-3 win over Calgary.

“A rat trick!” Vanbiesbrouck coined the phrase in the newspapers, and a legend was born, a dead rodent transmogrifying suddenly into something that would bond a team and its fans.

“It was an in-the-moment type of thing. Came to the top of my head,” the Beezer said. “It was just a fun comment. We were in such a good mood after that game!”

Before long, toy rats — more and more of them — peppered the ice after Panthers goals and wins.

By the playoffs, they were raining in the hundreds (leading to a subsequent NHL rule prohibiting them during games).

I recall during that ’96 playoff run seeing dozens of Panthers employees scurry onto the ice after home goals scooping thrown rats into white plastic pails. At least one employee used one of those giant push-broom squeegees like you see used to help move puddles from tennis courts. In the catacombs of the arena after games, you’d see huge clear plastic bags turned dark by the collected toy rats that filled them.

MacLean, 20 years later, still recalls a postgame report given him one night as a team employee trotted toward him.

“He says, ‘Hey, coach, 983 rats we picked up on the ice last night. I loved seeing them come!’ ”

Said Mellanby, rat killer, legend maker: “I had no idea that night that it would turn into what it turned into. It was a big part of my career I’ll never forget. It’s pretty cool people remember it and embrace it still.”

Maybe the current Panthers will equal or even surpass the ’96 bunch as the playoffs commence, led by the mysterious good luck of that “Spacey in Space” sweatshirt.

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

Who says Panthers fans won’t be attending a championship parade on the 20th anniversary of unexpectedly coming so close.

If a fairy tale can star a dead rat, isn’t anything possible?

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