Stephen Weiss Returns To South Florida


Weiss (90) returns to the BB&T Center tonight. Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

I am sitting in my Boston apartment right now watching the first snow of the season. The Vince Guaraldi Trio is chugging along softly in the background because its December 10th and listening to A Charlie Brown Christmas is what you do in December. Having only moved to Boston at the end of the summer, the snow is a new experience for me. Obviously I have seen snow, growing up in Upstate New York sometimes it feels like snow is all you see, but this is the first time I am seeing it from my new digs.

The grill on my back porch looks forlorn surrounded only by barren trees and overturned patio furniture. To the east is only snow covered roofs, dead trees and stone chimneys protruding into the grey white sky. It does not take much work to imagine yourself back into industrial revolution era London. Charles Dickens could right next door furiously working away by candle light. The silence is stifling.

Stephen Weiss makes his return to Florida tonight for the first time since signing with the Detroit Red Wings during the off-season. For many younger Panther fans, myself included, Stephen Weiss is the quintessential Florida Panther. I was five years old when the Panthers made their run to the Stanley Cup, my only memory of the event is the Journey To The Cup video from EA Sports’ NHL 97 that briefly showed highlights of the Panthers being swept by the Avs. Scott Mellanby was my favorite player and I wore number 27 throughout my hockey career in his honor but truthfully, I can barely remember ever seeing him play.

Weiss was drafted fourth overall in the 2001 NHL Draft. I was eleven years old, entering my prime as a Panthers fan, just in time for a ten season playoff drought. Throughout those years, if you stuck by the Panthers, then Stephen Weiss was your guy. Guys like Jay Bouwmeester, Nathan Horton, Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen came and went but it was always Weiss that you could rely on.

Panthers fans rarely begrudge their players for skipping town for greener pastures. Whether it be through trades or free agency, most of the best Panthers do not stick around for long. The Panthers are kind of like a stepping stone between the AHL and the big time. You come to Florida, put your time in and hope you perform well enough to get traded to the Bruins or maybe the Canucks and possibly get a chance to compete for a Stanley Cup. I never took it personally when the best Panthers were traded away for pennies on the dollar, but it certainly always heightened my appreciation for Stephen Weiss.

Its like in the Office when Michael Scott left Dunder Mifflin to start the Michael Scott Paper Company. Everybody in the office left Michael out to dry except for Pam who followed him blindly to the new underdog business. Stephen Weiss was our Pam.

Weiss is the Panthers all time leader in games played (654) and assists (249). He is second in points behind Olli Jokinen and fourth in goals behind Jokinen, Mellanby and Pavel Bure. Those are fitting stats for a guy that was always good enough to be one of the best players on the team but never so good that he had to be shipped out of town. Weiss never developed into a star in the NHL which makes him a fitting hero for Panthers fans. He was beloved by Panther fans because he came to the rink everyday and went about his business no matter how good or bad (mostly bad) the team was around him.

Stephen Weiss finally made it to the playoffs with the Panthers in 2011-12. During the season, he was one of the team’s best players finishing the year second on the team with 57 points (20-37-57), trailing only Tomas Fleischmann‘s 61. It was a fun story to watch and everybody around the league was happy to see Weiss finally make it into the postseason but it also felt like he was nearing his Panthers’ Graduation date.

Weiss is the Panthers all-time leader in games (654) and assists (249). Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

After an injury marred 2012-13 season, Weiss became an unrestricted free agent. His career pedigree meant he would be in line for a hefty contract but his recent injuries made him a risky player to sign. The high-cost and high-risk made it impossible for the Panthers to resign Weiss and he eventually nabbed a five-year $24.5 million deal from the Detroit Red Wings, a team that could take on the injury risk as well as the financial burden.

Just like that, Weiss was gone. His final act with the Panthers was not his triumphant journey to the playoffs but rather his dismal 12-13 season where injuries limited him to just 17 games and four points (1-3-4). His exit was more Dicky Eklund than Micky Ward.

Life as a Panthers fan is easier if you root for your guys after they leave town. You can waste your time feeling indignant whenever you watch an ex-Panther succeed but believe me, that gets tiresome fast. Whenever Gregory Campbell puts together a classically scrappy fourth line shift I always have to remind my Bruins fan friends that they are watching an ex-Panther. I often feel like a high school guidance counselor being overtaken with pride watching a former student go on to Stanford to major in neurobiology or like a proud parent calling up Aunt Jenny to gloat and ask if they watched “little Vincent on TV”.

Thats why it kind of bums me out to see Weiss struggling to produce this season. On the one hand I am happy it was not the Panthers who committed five years and $25 million on a guy who has only produced four points (2-2-4) in 25 games but at the same time it would be nice if he started to get things going again, maybe not tonight but soon at least.

On Monday night, Stephen Weiss had dinner with former teammate Shawn Matthias who lived with Weiss for a couple of seasons at the start of his (Matthias’) career.  Its worth noting that the second Weiss accepted his deal with Detroit, it was Matthias who took on the mantle of ‘longest tenured Panther’. Now here they are again, sharing the same ice on a Tuesday night in December, and its snowing in Boston.

The game is still the same but the view is just a little bit different.