The Florida Panthers were an expansion team in 1993–94 and Stanley Cup finalists by ’95–96. They were an underdog franchise on the Sunbelt in the United States made up of players being given a new opportunity–or a second chance. They bested Hall of Famers Bourque, Lindros and Jagr while landing John Vanbiesbrouck on the cover of NHL 97, all while dealing with a bit of a rat problem. Dan Marino came out to playoff games, the Miami Dolphins’ owner mailed a box of plastic rats to the home of Doug Maclean’s parents and a new fan base watched a new franchise catch fire. But they haven’t won a playoff round since. Twenty years later, we spoke to the GM, the coach, the players and the (junior) beat reporter about how the Panthers climbed all the way to the top before losing to the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
EXPANSION INTO SOUTH FLORIDA
TOM FITZGERALD, RW, 1993–98: I’d just finished the year (1992–93) with the Islanders and I was told I was being protected in the expansion draft. Lo and behold I was taken on what I think was a Thursday night. It was a bittersweet moment for me because the team I just finished playing with lost in the semifinal of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Then they got us all together [in Florida] and I realized I was amongst guys that were like me: hard-working, edgy-type players and I thought, “Geez, this might be really good.”
It was the opportunity that some of us weren’t getting to play up in a lineup, that we can be not only everyday NHLers, but contributing NHLers on the score sheet. That was important.
JOHN VANBIESBROUCK, G, 1993–98: It was a new horizon for me. I played on one team for 10 years—an Original Six team in the Rangers, who had a big following. This new team had no history. [Opportunity] was there for the taking.
BILL LINDSAY, LW/RW, 1993–99: I think for everyone it felt like a second lease on our hockey careers. We were elated that we got picked up in the expansion draft and had the chance to come to South Florida and make it work there.
Mike Russo, now the beat writer for the Minnesota Wild, had his first job in the business as a junior reporter covering the Panthers.
MIKE RUSSO: They used to refer to themselves as castoffs. The Panthers essentially drafted the core for their Cup run through that expansion draft and then they made a lot of shrewd moves behind the scenes to gobble up draft picks. In their first expansion draft they got their first two full-time captains in Brian Skrudland and Scott Mellanby.
The character on that team was through the absolute roof and I think that was the reason they got to where they did. It’s the most special team by far that I’ve ever covered.
ED JOVANOVSKI, D, 1995–99: When you have a bunch of hungry guys, usually good things happen.
BRYAN MURRAY, GM, 1994–2000: When I got the job in Florida and Roger Neilson was the head coach, the team had great structure. It was a group I guess you’d call castoffs—expansion guys who’d been made available–but they knew how to play without the puck. At the end of the last year with Roger, I found that we never really tried to win close games—if it was 2–1, we didn’t pull the goaltender very often. Defence and goals against were almost too important to him. I felt if we were going to go anywhere, we needed some emotion, some character, a different voice. Doug MacLean was a players’ coach and so I hired him.
It was a hard decision; I got criticized big-time by the media in South Florida. They thought I was, I don’t know, a jerk for doing it, I’m sure.
DOUG MacLEAN, HEAD COACH, 1995—97: The main guy [who prepared me for my first coaching job], without a doubt, without exception, was Bryan Murray. I was with Bryan for 10 years. As an assistant coach in Washington, in Detroit—he gave me the chance. If I don’t get that chance then I don’t get the Columbus [GM] job. My career starts and ends with Bryan. I came from coaching in the Maritime junior league to the NHL in two years.
You can never underestimate what Bryan meant to that group. He set the tone.
The Panthers were one of the first clubs to debut during the NHL’s push to have pro hockey in the southern United States. Florida’s viability as a hockey state and the attendance at Panthers games was, and still is, a topic debated in the hockey community.
MacLEAN: I got hired and I remember going to the press conference where there was pressure in the marketplace to make the playoffs. The Heat had just hired Pat Riley and there was excitement about bringing him into town and for me personally [fans were] like, “Who the hell is this guy?”
The day I got the job, I got a call from Brian Skrudland who said, “Doug, you’re going to be shocked how good this team is.”
The first four or five games [of 1995–96] there was real concern about our attendance. We lost our first game on the road and were going home to play five in a row. I was nervous. Well, we won our next five and I think from mid-November on, you couldn’t buy a ticket for three years in Florida.
MURRAY: I really thought that it was a building block for hockey in the South. I remember driving down different streets in my neighbourhood and seeing young kids playing hockey in the driveways. We’d never seen that before. It’s dropped off a bit now but it’s coming back.
FITZGERALD: We all lived in Palm Beach County in Boca but we practised in Pompano Beach and played out of Miami Arena in Dade County. We covered all three counties and it really helped with the fan base.
VANBIESBROUCK: It was quite a spectacle. I’ve always admired teams that wouldn’t quit and when we got down to Florida we heard a lot about the ’72 Dolphins. We wanted to fit in and we just didn’t want to be embarrassed.
RUSSO: Unless something huge is going on, [Floridians] will not come out—you need a big event. Everybody embraced that run.
CUP RUN: Round 1: Panthers vs. Boston Bruins
Florida finished the 1995–96 season 41-31-10, good for fourth in the Eastern Conference. In the first Panthers playoff appearance in team history, their opponent was the Boston Bruins.
LINDSAY: We only won three of our last 14 [regular season games] but I remember hitting that ice on opening night against Boston and it felt like a second season, you could feel the energy come right back into your body. Like my skates weren’t even touching the ice.
I don’t know how to describe it but it was something I had never felt in hockey before that and it was the best experience I ever had.
Lindsay produced one of the first big moments of the Panthers’ run by scoring the series-clinching goal against the Boston Bruins in Game 5 of round one.
It was an afternoon game and I think it was the first time that my parents got to see me down here. The first four or five games of the series [against Boston], I felt great. All of a sudden in game five, I didn’t have my legs. I was struggling, just didn’t feel right, was tired. Then I had that chance.
Ray Bourque had been out there for a while on the power play, I went down wide around him and saw the reaction from the fans before I knew the puck was in the net. The place exploded. I tried to do a windmill and I think I fell on the seat of my pants.
It was one of the bright spots of my career and it happened in the blink of an eye.
One thing many people will remember from those playoffs is the hundreds of rats thrown on the ice after Panthers goals. During the regular season, Scott Mellanby killed one in the team’s dressing room and went on to score two goals that same night–a feat that would be called the “Rat Trick.” It also happened to be the year of the rat on the Chinese calendar. The NHL banned rat throwing after the end of the season.
RUSSO: There were scalpers on the street selling rats before games at Miami Arena. They were sold off the shelves of Toys “R” Us. It was crazy. The owner’s wife threw rats on the ice herself.
MacLEAN: My parents were watching the games from PEI and it was in the newspaper that they didn’t have rats there. Instead, they would roll up black socks and throw them at the TV. Dan Le Batard, the famous writer for ESPN and Miami Herald, went to watch a game at home with my parents and he wrote about the socks. So Wayne Huizenga, the owner of the Dolphins, orders this case of rats and he overnighted them to PEI.
VANBIESBROUCK: We loved it because we had scored and now needed that goal to last a long time. We never knew when the next goal was going to come.
I’ve never seen, in my time in the game, anything connect with the fans like that without winning the Stanley Cup.
Rounds 2 and 3: Panthers vs. Philadelphia Flyers / Pittsburgh Penguins
Before reaching the Stanley Cup Final, the Panthers knocked off the top two Eastern Conference seeds in the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. This was an era in which the Flyers’ Eric Lindros was the dominating forward of the NHL and Penguins Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux won nine of 10 Art Ross trophies.
JOVANOVSKI: Against Eric Lindros, that was a fun matchup. A big, strong guy who wasn’t gonna beat you with a dipsy-doo but you had to be on your toes because he did everything. In the Pittsburgh series, you just wanted to steer clear of Mario and Jagr. That series was a little tough for me because those guys would try to beat you laterally.
Philly was more of a straight-ahead team, kind of old-time hockey, chip-and-chase. For me, being young and full of piss and vinegar, I kind of had the energy [to keep up with the Flyers].
Tom Fitzgerald played for the ’93 New York Islanders, who defeated the two-time defending Stanley Cup–champion Penguins in seven games. He faced them again in the ’96 Eastern final.
RUSSO: I remember walking around the Flyers’ and Penguins’ dressing rooms and getting the feeling that Lemieux and Lindros and Leclair and Jagr didn’t take this team seriously. They couldn’t believe this team was actually putting up a fight. I think that the fact that the Panthers beat the Penguins in the East final really woke up the Colorado Avalanche.
MacLEAN: Beezer was a star. Imagine getting John Vanbiesbrouck in the expansion draft, being that fortunate. He was a star every night. I say how important everyone was but Beezer was the guy, he was so damn good in those playoffs.
VANBIESBROUCK: You never know you can do it until you do it. That sounds like a Yogi Bear-ism but… you’re not thinking about how great the competition is. Dave Lowry got on a run in the playoffs and scored 10 goals. I don’t know how many he had in the regular season but he was kind of like a Justin Williams.
FITZGERALD: Each round, somebody else wore the cape. Then we ran into the Avalanche who [laughs] were very good.
FITZGERALD: In ’93, the bottom two lines in New York had to be competent in playing against [Lemieux and Jagr] and not cheat but get under their skin, play edgy, just make the game hard. In ’96, we wore [everyone] down with two lines. It worked against Adam Oates in the first round, then it was the Lindros line in the second. It would be 40 seconds of pain-in-the-ass work and that’s what happened in the Pittsburgh series, the same thing.
THAT PLANE RIDE
The Panthers defeated the Penguins in game seven of the third round to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. That same night they flew out to Denver and two nights later played Colorado.
LINDSAY: That plane ride to Denver, that’s probably the best I’ve ever felt in sports. It’s hard to put it into words. It sucks we didn’t win the Stanley Cup but I’ll remember that plane ride after the Pittsburgh game forever.
FITZGERALD: We stopped at a convenience store on the way to the airport, bought all kinds of beer. I gotta tell you: That flight to Denver felt like my flight home from Detroit with the Penguins after winning the Cup [as an assistant coach in 2009].
JOVANOVSKI: It reminded me of a cigar lounge; beers were goin’. We had one more hurdle ahead of us but guys enjoyed it. I don’t think, nowadays, you’re doing that, because the ultimate prize is winning the Stanley Cup.
VANBIESBROUCK: I was just exhausted. The team should have gone home [that night], we had such a quick turnaround. We weren’t able to dump the one emotion and harness the next, which was getting prepared for the Stanley Cup Final.
MacLEAN: Coming off the ice, Dan Marino hugged me. I’m thinkin’ “Oh man, we’ve made it here.”
The plane ride was everything you could imagine but it still to this day ticks me off. Today, there’s no way you’d play a game seven and be on the plane going to a different time zone and having to play within two days–it was a joke, to me. I’m not taking anything away from the Avs because they were that good, but we had nothing in the tank.
MURRAY: It hurt us a little bit [getting on the plane that night]. With Ottawa [in 2007], we had 11 days off after winning the East and that was too long. In this case, we played Saturday night and had to play again Tuesday. The guys had to celebrate and that flight out was most definitely a highlight and they had a lot of fun but the fun might have cost us, particularly in the early part of the final. But you couldn’t take away from the players what that team achieved.
It was really something special and it will continue to be for as long as we live.
RUSSO: I don’t know that they were able to take a deep breath. The next thing they knew, they were down 2–0 in the Stanley Cup Final and had to return home [where they were ultimately swept in two more losses]. As many veterans as they had, they also had a bunch of young guys that hit a wall.
SOUTH FLORIDA LEGACY
The Panthers have not won a single playoff round since. Twenty years after their trip to the final, they enter the post-season this year first in the Atlantic Division, led in points by Jaromir Jagr.
RUSSO: I can’t believe they haven’t won a playoff round since. There are graduates of high school and college who have never seen the Panthers win a playoff round–an entire generation of kids. To me, it just feels like yesterday.
LINDSAY: A lot of players from that team went on to have fantastic careers afterward. That playoff run meant a lot, and when you win as a hockey team, you get a lot of opportunities–you can ask any Stanley Cup champion. The opportunities to keep playing, once you’re branded a winner, are plentiful.
VANBIESBROUCK: It’s really thrilling just to be remembered in the same conversation as Lemieux and Bourque and to be talked about in those circles. Everyone wants to be successful but not everyone can be significant.