Greg Cote

Heat say goodbye to its past, while Panthers embrace future

Panthers general manager Tom Rowe poses with Aaron Ekblad, who signed an eight-year extension Thursday. Ekblad could make the Panthers the premier team in South Florida.
Panthers general manager Tom Rowe poses with Aaron Ekblad, who signed an eight-year extension Thursday. Ekblad could make the Panthers the premier team in South Florida. AP

We still work to reconcile the idea Dwyane Wade suddenly is in our community’s rear-view mirror, in the past tense. It hardly seems real yet.

And with that, all at once, South Florida’s most reliably winning sports team, the Miami Heat, is buffeted by unsteadiness.

Thursday felt a bit like a collective day of civic mourning as we awakened to the news Wade was gone to the Chicago Bulls. But it didn’t feel like that everywhere.

See, while the Heat was saying goodbye to what was, the Florida Panthers were celebrating what’s next, formally announcing that defenseman Aaron Ekblad had signed an extraordinary eight-year contract extension worth $60 million — the latest and most impressive move in the hockey team’s whirlwind offseason of spending and commitment.

Ekblad, budding superstar, already has played two Panthers seasons and still is only 20 years old, his neatly trimmed thick, full beard making him seem older. At the end of the deal he just signed he’ll be a 10-year veteran still in his late 20s. Still in his prime.

“It’s weird, right?” he said Thursday, smiling, sounding like a kid even if he doesn’t look or play like one.

Ekblad personifies all of the promise of this team.

“Our ceiling is very high. It’s picking up. It’s taking off,” he said, on an ethereal, metaphoric roll. “We’re floating. Now we want to get above the clouds.”

Back down to earth, new general manager Tom Rowe called Ekblad “a guy we’ll be able to build a Stanley Cup team around.”

The timing on Thursday — Heat fans wistful for a past now gone as Panthers fans swelled with hope for the future — made for a perfect and fitting juxtaposition.

There is one professional team among us clearly best-positioned and poised to throw our next championship parade.

It is the one on skates.

It is the major team that many of us ignore, the hockey team, that is working to ditch the shade and make you pay attention.

These are interesting, changing times on South Florida’s pro sports landscape.

The Heat, failing to land Kevin Durant, rocked by Wade’s departure, still unsure about Chris Bosh, and now relying disproportionately on the mercurial Hassan Whiteside, feels like a franchise that has misplaced its rudder and compass.

The competitive Marlins are in the playoff hunt as baseball’s all-star break looms, but without a recent history to inspire much confidence they’ll stay in it.

The Dolphins, well, after years of disappointment, this franchise will be perceived as stuck in that rut of mediocrity until they finally prove they are out of it, beyond it.

I’ve been amused the past day or two by the knee-jerk hand-wringing over the supposed dire straits of the Heat, as if the House of Riley has suddenly crumbled in a heap of pluming rubble.

Deep breath, please. Slow exhale.

Let’s see how good Whiteside becomes. Let’s see about Bosh’s future. If you can build around a core of those two, Goran Dragic and rising duo Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, and be financially positioned to pursue another “whale,” you’re going to be OK. Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra have not lost our trust.

Having said that, though, the questions for now dogging the Heat, the Marlins’ and the sketchy recent track record and the Dolphins’ malaise, all position the Panthers as the strongest team in the market moving forward.

And the Cats know it.

“We’re doing everything we can to make this is a relevant franchise in the NHL and show people we’re serious about winning the Stanley Cup,” Rowe said. “And we’re going to deliver on that. I think we’ve got the horses now to have a deep run in the playoffs.”

Florida is coming off the best regular season in the club’s 23 years, albeit one that ended in a disappointing first-round playoff exit, and has since been the most active, aggressive team in all of pro sports.

Beyond the window dressing of newly unveiled uniforms and logo, the club fortified its front office primarily by hiring Rowe to work under respected architect Dale Tallon. And franchise co-owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu have been spending money like most of us only do playing Monopoly.

While the Heat spent the past few weeks failing to woo Durant and alienating Wade, the Panthers, in addition to Ekblad’s eight-year extension, quietly were signing veteran defenseman Keith Yandle to a seven-year deal, extending forward Vincent Trochek by six years, and adding five years each to the contracts of Reilly Smith and Jason Demers.

Age-defying Jaromir Jagr, 44, and goaltender Roberto Luongo, 37, bookend a coalescing core of young talent now locked up for years, including Sasha Barkov and Nick Bjugstad (both signed long-term) and Jonathan Huberdeau (with whom they’re negotiating an extension).

It is refreshing — a cocktail of confidence and gumption — to a hear a franchise that last played for the Stanley Cup in 1996 now inviting those highest expectations.

At one point Thursday Ekblad said, “if we win a Stanley Cup,” and quickly corrected himself: “I’m sorry, when we win a Stanley Cup.”

Heat fans reel from the cold business of sports reflected in Wade’s departure, but, a 30-minute jaunt northwest of Miami, the team that plays on ice has only begun to heat up.