There was a time when the Florida Panthers really mattered in the crowded South Florida landscape. It really wasn’t that long but, for the die-hards, it seems like a lifetime. For the first 7-8 years of this franchise, the Panthers, and hockey in general, were given coverage by the local media at almost on par with the Miami Heat, their winter sports brethren. But things changed after being swept out of the 2000 playoffs by the New Jersey Devils. Original owner Wayne Huzienga sold the team to a consortium lead by Allen Cohen in 2001 and things were never the same. For the next decade, the Cats were unmatched in their futility. Franchise players were traded for next to nothing by a variety of general managers, leaving very little to build on and leaving the team barely noticed in the its own region
In the span of about eight hours on Friday, GM Dale Tallon and Assistant GM Mike Santos did more to renew interest and change the losing culture on the club than any player/coach/GM in the past 10 years.
Suddenly, the buzz on free agent signing day was the Florida Panthers! Twitter feeds blew up with the news of each signing and before you could react to one, the next one was coming along. For the first time, the Cats were drawing attention for spending money instead than dumping salary. We’re not used to this down here! We knew there was money to spend, but it was still a shock to see. As the evening drew to a close, the Panthers roster received a makeover like it has never seen. All that was left was the criticism of over spending. And, to be sure, they overspent. They had to. When you’re in the situation this team was in, it’s about the only way you’re going to get anyone to come here. That’s what Tallon did in Chicago and now, it’s again a premiere destination. Will this market ever be in a similar spot? Stranger things have happened. South Florida already has weather, attractions and no state tax on its side. Add stable ownership and management and it’s possible.
What the Panthers did Friday was offer an olive branch to fans who had previously given up. The season ticket holders past who never renewed because, as I had one once tell me, ‘they were taking my money and not giving anything back.’ It’s a message to them that it’s ok to come back. It says things ARE going to be different this time. For the die hards, it felt like patience rewarded. Like maybe we weren’t fools for staying with this team all this time. For many of us, it was a day of celebration of a a team that hasn’t given its fans much to celebrate about.
To be clear, the future of this team is still the kids. Bjugstad, Markstrom, Gudbranson, Hubereau, Howden. Those names are going to be the big factors in the success of this team. But in the meantime, Panther fans bask in the fact that their team is no longer hockey’s forgotten franchise. Enjoy it!
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