30 Thoughts: Panthers in spotlight for wrong reason

Hockey fans look on during the third period of an NHL hockey game between the Florida Panthers and the Ottawa Senators. Wilfredo Lee/AP

Seventeen years ago, Oleg Tverdovsky joined the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs during a contract dispute with the Phoenix Coyotes. A high-school friend of mine, Cary Kaplan, worked in the marketing department and came up with a great idea for a promotion.

He wanted to designate one home game as “OT night,” where, if Tverdovsky scored the winning goal in overtime, everyone would win a free ticket to another game. (Get it: OT scores in OT.)

The idea was rejected.

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The Oilers, who ran the team at the time, didn’t want to do it. They believed very strongly that a person who paid full price for a ticket should never turn to someone next to them and hear, “Oh, I got in for free.” That is method number one of infuriating loyal customers.

I disagreed for years. Until a Hockey Night in Canada assignment in Broward County for a Panthers’ home game against Toronto.

There was a fan (a dentist, he was happy to tell people) with seats right on the glass. There were plenty of empty ones around him. The usher decided to move some fans into the area. But, he wasn’t paying enough attention, because, twice the dentist went to the concourse, and twice the usher put people in his seats.

The guy freaked. It was a “Mommie Dearest” wire-hanger-level meltdown.

“I’ve had these tickets for years!” he yelled. “Why do I bother? Everyone gets in here for free!”

His date looked terrified. The people around him looked terrified. The usher looked terrified. For me, it was an “uh-huh” moment. I finally understood why OT Night didn’t happen.

Monday evening, the Panthers crawled under the microscope for all the wrong reasons, as the smallest crowd in franchise history booed the end of a 1-0 loss to Ottawa. There is no doubt the NHL and the organization were ready for this. They made a conscious decision to stop the freebies.

They know October is their worst month for attendance. (You’d be surprised how many owners want to start the season in November.) They know the Senators are not a huge draw in Southeast Florida. They know the team hasn’t won a playoff round since Joe Thornton began his NHL career. They know this is a tough market. Even the once-mighty Miami Hurricanes’ college football team is aching for bums in the seats.

You can know all that, and still find those empty seats jarring. It’s not a new phenomenon — its happened in Canada — but the social media age makes it look soooooooooo much worse.

Everyone says new ownership is in this for the long haul, and the current lease is ironclad for another decade. There are no out clauses for bad attendance. There is nothing like Arizona, where $50 million in losses over five years triggers an escape, if wanted. The NHL’s history is to fight to the bitter end as long as an owner is willing to do so.

City council is exploring the possibility of breaking that lease, if there is good financial reason to do so. Maybe that’s what happens, although, if only free tickets are not being used, how much of a revenue hit is it, really?

We made fun of the Panthers for their crazy $9 discount plans. Now, we’re making fun for getting rid of them. They can’t win, which is one of the problems.

Free tickets haven’t worked, so why annoy those who actually pay? As ugly as it looks, it’s the right move.


1. Over the summer, there was a rumour the Panthers ideally would like to move into American Airlines Arena with the NBA Heat. No idea if that even works for hockey, but the premise was shot down.

2. If the Oilers think Jeff Petry is not good enough to dress in Los Angeles, it is time. He’s unrestricted at the end of the year. He’s not going to stay; there is no point in keeping him. Get what you can, end the distraction and move on. Detroit is the obvious candidate, but I can see Anaheim wanting a shot at him, too. Both are looking for right-shot defencemen.

3. Of all the on-ice concerns Edmonton has, one of the biggest must be the manhandling of their young players. The Canucks were very hard on Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall. There’s nothing wrong with that; you should play those guys tough. (The Kings also knocked Hall around last night.) But both Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins were injured and unable to play in southern California. The Oilers say Nugent-Hopkins was not injured in the fight with Dan Hamhuis. Rather, he was injured by the hit that led to the fight. Whatever the case, he is arguably their most important player right now with their thinness at centre. I can understand he was frustrated; but should someone else have been the one to respond? Or, do something to show, “We can be hard on your players, too?”

4. Excellent ceremony honouring the 1984 Oilers’ Stanley Cup winner last Friday night. Peter Pocklington almost cried at his ovation, a real nice, if unexpected, tribute. It’s unreal to see the difference between that and what’s going on now. Watching Edmonton play at home, you can feel the tension in the building through a television set. During last Thursday’s 5-2 loss to Calgary, the building went angry and the team sagged as things went sideways in the third period. There’s been a lot of losing and fans have the right to be upset, but you can see the effect it is having on the youth.

5. Petry, as mentioned, has “Detroit” written all over him. From Michigan, father pitched for the Tigers. And, the Wings — on the hunt for a right-shot defender — have been linked to Tyler Myers a few times. Last summer, during one conversation, the Sabres asked for Anthony Mantha (and probably another prospect). Detroit wasn’t willing to do that. Here’s the thing about Myers: he’s only 24, and his salary drops over the final five years of his contract. Buffalo is making it clear. If you want him, pay up.

6. It’s no secret the Red Wings are hoping to move Jakub Kindl. Right now, the fish aren’t biting. His contract rises to $3 million by 2016-17.

7. Finally on Detroit: If, at some point, the Panthers reconsider their plans to keep Brian Campbell, it is believed the Wings are interested. Campbell is not a righty, but is a terrific puck-mover. He does have some no-trade protection.

8. Sixteen teams watched Islanders/Carolina last Friday night. It was the only game on the schedule, so that’s a factor. Don’t know what Ron Francis or Bill Peters did in a previous life to deserve season-starting injuries to Jeff Skinner and the brothers Staal, but it must have been awful. There’s no guarantee the Hurricanes move Staal, and he controls the situation. But teams are going to take a close look at him — just in case. You forget he’s still a week shy of 30.

9. It is certainly possible others were being looked at, and I would suspect one is Andrej Sekera. The defenceman, 29 in July, is eligible to hit the market after an 11-goal, 44-point season, although you’d expect Carolina to take a run at keeping him. Teams will be watching Sekera for two reasons: If he becomes available, do you give up assets to trade for him? Or, next summer, do you spend the money to sign him? (Sekera was injured Tuesday night, but Peters said X-rays came back negative.)

10. After Chris Pronger’s NHL hiring was announced, Flyers GM Ron Hextall said he’d tried to get something done about the injured defender’s contract, so that it would no longer hang over the team. He didn’t have success from a CBA standpoint. But, last weekend, a couple of sources indicated Philadelphia attempted to trade his rights during the summer. Can’t pin down who, (or for what), but there were some reasonably serious discussions.

11. One other note about Hextall, open in his desire to be patient: When Philly talked with Florida about the number one draft pick, he wanted some kind of cover in case the Flyers’ 2015 first-rounder (which would have been part of the deal) was too high. “Lottery protection” is a staple of NBA trades. For example, when Steve Nash was traded from Phoenix to the Lakers, one of the return picks was a 2015 first-rounder. But, the Suns can’t use it if it is top 5 in 2015 or top 3 in 2016-17. In 2018, it is unprotected. (Neither Hextall nor the Panthers would comment.)

12. In Vancouver’s first two games, Henrik Sedin’s offensive-zone start percentage is 39.1 — dead-last on the club. He has not been under 60 since 2010. Part of it may be that the Canucks are 25th in faceoffs early on, and he’s at 51 percent. The team opens with three games in nine days, so using him a little extra right now isn’t a problem. Once the schedule tightens, we’ll see if that usage continues.

13. When Calgary signed Dennis Wideman in 2012, one of the theories behind it was that Marc Savard, who shared the same agent, had an excellent experience with Bob Hartley in Atlanta. Good theory that didn’t work in practice. Hartley and Wideman haven’t mixed in southern Alberta. GM Brad Treliving has denied that Wideman (who has a no-move clause) is available, but he’s the Flames highest-paid player and that number rises the next two years.

14. Senators GM Bryan Murray on Erik Karlsson: “He’s going to have such a great season even you guys in Toronto will recognize how good he is.”

15. Some interesting quotes out of Ottawa about Paul MacLean and his relationship with the players. Both sides have talked a lot about how things went awry in 2013-14 and how everyone’s worked to make sure that does not happen again. “We’ve spent a lot of time defining roles,” the GM said. “Last year, no one seemed to understand where they stood. The relationship from the coach, to the captain [the now-traded Jason Spezza] on down, was not good, for whatever reason. We’ve addressed that properly this time. Everyone understands their role.” This kind of conversation was critical in Bobby Ryan’s re-signing.

16. Murray believes the best way for Ottawa to counter last year’s defensive zone nightmare is to aggressively forecheck and make sure the puck stays as far from the net as possible. Asked about his best at doing this, he answered with Clarke MacArthur, Mika Zibanejad, Milan Michalek and Curtis Lazar. Asked if Lazar is an 82-game player, he replied, “I believe he is. But we’re going to find out if he’s ready for that right now.”

17. Very similar deal for Colorado. When the Avalanche were wiped out 5-0 by Minnesota in their opener, the Wild, who have a nice, mobile defence that moves the puck quickly, were allowed to walk up the ice unimpeded. The rematch was a 3-0 defeat, but, upon further review, you could see the Avalanche made it harder to break out, creating a few more board battles and forcing some chips. That will be critical for Colorado, without the most mobile of bluelines.

18. Patrick Roy set the right tone after that second loss. “If we play like this, we’ll be okay,” he said. Players take their cues from coaches in those moments. They were down, outscored 8-0 in two games. That’s when you’ve got to lead. One of my best bosses would kill me after good work, encourage when I screwed up.

19. Minnesota signed one of those mobile, young defenders — Jonas Brodin — to a six-year, $25 million extension that bought two years of unrestricted free agency. GM Chuck Fletcher went through a list of comparables: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Justin Faulk, Cam Fowler, Jake Gardiner, Victor Hedman, etc. and “felt he belonged. We had no reservations about going long-term.” It’s a great deal for both team and player, because he’s getting better and, in the words of one exec, “not getting any cheaper.” He will be eligible for a new contract at age 28, so there will be a second windfall.

20. The Wild are talking to some of their other potential RFAs, a list that includes Charlie Coyle and the rapidly improving Mikael Granlund. Would those players prefer to wait to see their final numbers before making a deal? “We’ll know in the next few weeks,” Fletcher said. “But whether it is now or later, we’re comfortable. There’s no rush at all.”

21. Every year, I ask Fletcher if the Wild will try to curb Ryan Suter’s minutes. Last season, he came close to setting a record for most time on ice in one season. His answer: “Young guys evolve. Our depth is getting better, which should lead to fewer minutes. But it is a non-Olympic year, making it easier on the body. He could play half the game every night.” Translation: It’s going to be close.

22. Fletcher did say the team would like Suter to “be more involved in the offence…get up in the rush.” He had 43 points last season, three off his career high.

23. Yes, it’s only three games, but the much-maligned Ondrej Pavelec has a .917 save percentage in his first three appearances. That’s not the best such start in his career — he was at .929 in 2013 — but the way he looks has the Jets cautiously hopeful. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is very loyal to Pavelec, who won a Calder Cup with him in 2008. But Winnipeg needed Pavelec to “calm” his game, especially when it came to rebounds. Opponents would say his lack of control on them led to great second chances, because the defence was caught flat-footed. He looks much different in the early going. They need Pavelec, because backup Michael Hutchinson may not be ready.

24. One player the Jets took a run at last summer: Lee Stempniak. With a new, young family, he wanted to stay east. Would have been a nice fit for them.

25. Two consecutive healthy scratches for Jake Gardiner. While the Maple Leafs were concerned about his defensive-zone work, they are also concerned he is becoming too one-dimensional on the attack — always carrying the puck. You do the same thing every time, you are too easy to defend. As part of that, forwards are slowing down instead of entering the opposing zone with speed.

26. No issue here with sitting Gardiner if he struggles, but it will be interesting to see who the extra defenceman is for Toronto on a consistent basis. If Stephane Robidas is getting a rest, no biggie. But if it’s a young player, Ottawa went through a revolving door of young defenders getting benched last season, and it didn’t help anyone.

27. Is Jonathan Bernier struggling with newly sized equipment? The answer is no. (New stuff, same specifications.) He’s sure looked rough his first two starts, with bad first goals allowed in both.

28. The first of those goals came after Max Pacioretty walked around a flat-footed Dion Phanuef on opening night. A turnover put Phaneuf in a bad spot, but he does not look at all comfortable playing the left side, even though he shoots that way. (He prefers the right.) Toronto is determined to try it, and a couple of coaches said last week you have to commit to it for 40 games to see if it will really work.

29. Wednesday, Damien Cox will unveil his first Sportsnet Top Prospects list for the 2015 Draft. I don’t have enough time to watch draft eligible players, but I am curious to see where he puts OHL Sarnia’s Pavel Zacha. Some combination of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel is going one-two and Noah Hanifin is third for now, but Zacha is rising. He may not get higher than four, but he’s charging toward that spot.

30. Remember: the Hockey Operations department decides every Monday on diving incidents from the previous week; whether to hand out warnings, or, after the first offence, fines. The NHL has decided not to make the warnings public. Individual players and teams can reveal if desired, but the league will not.

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