On Frozen Pond

The Florida Panthers hockey team tries to help raise awareness for true Florida panthers

A male panther in the wild — courtesy of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
A male panther in the wild — courtesy of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. FWC photo

When most people think of the Florida Panthers, they probably envision a hockey team from a state too warm to naturally create the ice they play on.

But the Florida Panthers hockey club also wants you to keep their namesake in mind – the endangered Florida panther.

In an effort to conserve and raise awareness for the team’s mascot, the Florida panther, the hockey team held its second annual Panther Conservation Night on March 10.

The event featured several conservationists who shared information about the endangered cat to fans at the game. Aside from two separate $12,500 grants, the team also donated $5 from every ticket purchased through the group ticket link created specifically for that night’s game, to conservation efforts.

“[The Florida Panthers hockey club] have really have gotten behind the mascot so much more than most sports franchises,” said Andy Hill, a Regional Council Member with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). “Most of the time it’s just a name and it doesn’t go much further than that.”

Hill is a big-time hockey fan who just so happened to be involved with the NPCA. After building a relationship with the management side of the team, he expressed the need to have greater awareness of the Florida panther in South Florida.

“We got the interest going a couple years ago at the tail end of the season, and through the offseason planned out this one day – which sounds kind of crazy, to spend so much time on one event, but in sports management that’s sometimes what it takes,” Hill said. He worked with the team to create what would ultimately become the first Panther Conservation Night.

Hill then reached out to John Adornato, senior regional director of the NPCA.

“NPCA is really proud, and honored, to be one of the partners with the Florida Panther team to really celebrate [and join] their effort in celebrating the Florida Panther as ‘More Than A Mascot’ – because it is,” Adornato said.

Adornato was excited to be part of the team that helped shape the event, which he saw as an opportunity to help save, “an icon of the Everglades.”

Adornato, through the NPCA, works to protect the panther by protecting Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park. “Big Cypress National Preserve is sort of ground zero for Florida Panther Habitat. There’s a significant number of them that live there, or roam and feed throughout Big Cypress National Preserve,” he said.

The 750,000 acres of the preserve, and the 1.5 million acres of Everglades National Park, “provide critical habitat for the Panther,” Adornato added.

Some of the most significant threats to the habitat of the Florida Panther come in the forms of “off-road vehicles and, more importantly, an ever-growing oil and gas drilling threat,” Adornato said.

Adornato said that, “the Collier Family donated a significant amount of the land that eventually created Big Cypress National Preserve … [but] retained the subsurface mineral rights. So even though the land is protected, underground whatever oil or gas reserves there are, the Collier Family still owns.”

This creates a unique situation, because – though the land is protected and managed by the National Parks Service – the Collier Family maintains the right to retrieve those oil and gas reserves.

The company contacted to find and collect the oil and gas reserves proposed scouting “70,000 acres … smack-dab in the middle of the preserve, where there are very few off-road vehicle trails. And there are very few off-road vehicle trails, because there’s a lot of sensitive wetland and prairie habitat,” Adornato said.

Tom Trotta, board member and former president of the Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge, said that they often work in the South Florida community to create awareness about the Florida Panther.

“At the beginning of the year we have a Florida Panther Festival which is held at the Naples Zoo and Botanical Gardens. And that event is mostly to educate people that live in the area, in Panther habitat. So they can protect their pets and their hobby livestock,” he said.

Over all, Trotta, “was excited that we had a sports team that was that involved in conservation and I thought it was fairly unique. I think I’ve heard it once before in Cincinnati with the Bengal Tigers, but it’s pretty unique among a sports team to conserve their mascot.”

Hill, regional council member for the NPCA, said “it’s really kind of interesting: you can compare and contrast [the Panthers Hockey Club and the Florida panther] with Penn State and the Nittany lion. Unfortunately, there [aren’t] any Nittany lions in existence any longer.”

Danielle Jacobs, Florida Panthers’ foundation coordinator, said that the Panthers Foundation, Trotta, Adornato and other conservationists, “had a meeting earlier in November where … we discussed what we wanted our Panther Conservation Night to look like, so everyone collaboratively worked together [to shape the event].”

The conservationists also shared facts about the panther that were displayed to fans on the scoreboard. “[The Foundation] worked with our game presentation team to give out some … facts in the beginning, [then] there was some trivia [and] some contests with our mascot,” Jacobs said.

“But also we gave some tips – some call-to-action items for panthers that the community and that the fans can take back: slow down when you’re in panther territory, keep small children away, we need to build more underpasses, and just ways to protect them in their habitat,” Jacobs added.

Jacobs said that helping the endangered Florida Panther is one of the four pillars of the foundation’s mission. “It is our mascot, it’s a big part of our team, so we wanted to put together this night just to … give the awareness out to fans,” she said.

“On behalf of the Foundation, we have a Community Champions program, where non-profit organizations that have to deal with the four pillars of our foundation can apply for up to $25,000. We actually had two applicants – Zoo Miami, and Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society that applied for a grant, both to help the panthers that are actually at their Zoo. So we gave each of them $12,500 for a total of $25,000 so that they can go back and help the panthers at their organizations,” Jacobs said.

Simone, executive director of the Florida Panthers’ foundation, described the event as “an extremely important night for the Florida Panthers hockey club, and we are proud to be a small part of conservation efforts in South Florida.

“We hope that from this night and from our other efforts, that our fans and beyond will understand that we are committed to assisting in conservation efforts to help this beautiful animal.

“We also hope that we were able to share important information to individuals about the plight of the panther, and small tips about what an individual can do to be a part of panther conservation efforts – no matter how small it is.”