How the Florida Panthers and Hockey Captured My Heart

SUNRISE, FL - APRIL 6: Goaltender Roberto Luongo #1 of the Florida Panthers helmet at the ready prior to the puck drop against the New Jersey Devils at the BB&T Center on April 6, 2019 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
SUNRISE, FL - APRIL 6: Goaltender Roberto Luongo #1 of the Florida Panthers helmet at the ready prior to the puck drop against the New Jersey Devils at the BB&T Center on April 6, 2019 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Despite the disappointing and frustrating times that can come with being a fan of the Florida Panthers, this team, and the sport, has had my heart completely won over.

Originally born in Chicago, I never truly had a lot of interest in watching hockey at a young age. The Blackhawks were in an attendance crisis from 2001 to 2006, with the team averaging less than 15,000 in attendance per game.

Neither of my parents were very into hockey either. My mom grew up around Chicago but was indifferent on sports. My dad only moved up to Chicago from Tampa for work, a diehard Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Florida Marlins fan, but with no Tampa Bay Lightning or Florida Panthers in existence while he grew up, hockey was never his first passion.

My fandom for the Panthers began in the 2011-12 season. During this time, my brother started playing roller hockey and a lot of the families were very excited about the Panthers that year. The team roared out to a 16-8-4 start, and fans hoped for the Cats to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.

My first Panthers game came early that season, December 16th, 2011 against the Calgary Flames. My knowledge of the teams, and the game, was still very limited.

The Panthers’ top players were mostly around their late 20s to late 30s, such as Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann, Ed Jovanovski, Brian Campbell, Jason Garrison, and Jose Theodore.

The game was very intense throughout, tied for 44:32 of regulation. Florida took the lead under 7 minutes in through Sean Bergenheim, but Calgary drew level shortly after through Olli Jokinen, a name that I had never realized meant so much to the Panthers’ franchise.

The Panthers dominated the game, but couldn’t find a way through Leland Irving until 4:35 to go in the game, in which Bergenheim struck again to tie the score at 2.

Overtime and the shootout were very entertaining as a neutral, as no other sports really were as sudden death as hockey O.T. was. Despite flubbing their first two chances, Theodore made 3 straight saves to keep Florida alive, denying Lee Stempniak in the 4th round of the shootout, with Weiss scoring the winner.

I went to two more games that year and kept getting games that went to shootouts. Florida beat out Jason Pominville’s Buffalo Sabres in a 3-2 shootout win that wound up having massive implications on the playoffs, but lost 3-2 to the New York Islanders, who had Matt Moulson score his 34th goal of the season that afternoon.

The season of promise ended in agony, a theme that would repeat itself throughout my time as a fan. Despite home-ice advantage, the Panthers fell in a crushing 7 games to New Jersey.

That series was filled with stress, with the Panthers erasing multiple deficits to take a commanding 3-2 series lead before losing in overtime in Game 6 and second overtime on home ice in Game 7.

It was a lot for my 11-year-old mind to take; the leads blown, the missed calls from the referees, the incredible saves exchanged between Jose Theodore and Martin Brodeur all series long, but it ultimately wasn’t meant to be.

What I always remembered was, after a brutal seven games, both teams lined up and congratulating each other on a hard-fought series. It was odd, no other sport was ever as organized when it came to shaking hands after a game.

So, as I watched on through tears (half sad, half past my bedtime tired), it became true to me that even though hockey looks dirty on the outside with big hits, knocked out teeth and full-on fights in the middle of the games, the players all have the utmost respect for each other in the end.

Back to the Panthers, that season was a mere mirage of success for the team. After a dreadful lockout, the team reared its ugly head the next two years. Lots of faces left, Kevin Dineen axed, Garrison and Weiss leaving in free agency, and Keaton Ellerby, Kris Versteeg, and the emerging Jacob Markstrom were all traded.

New faces entered the organization seemingly by the day from the farm. The Panthers’ prospects they drafted before the playoff year were guys like Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad, and Erik Gudbranson. The team didn’t improve at all and attendance decreased immensely, but signs of encouragement were shown in 2014-15.

The Cats, led by new head coach Gerard Gallant, missed the playoffs by just seven points. Barkov and Huberdeau emerged as top-line forwards, Ekblad looked like a great player, and Gudbranson was a serious fan favorite.

That season was also a final goodbye to what was left of the initial Panthers I rooted for. Tomas Fleischmann was sent to Anaheim as a cap dump, while Sean Bergenheim was offloaded for a draft pick.

That draft pick was used to trade for of the few players I knew about before watching hockey, Jaromir Jagr. I wound up going to his debut game, a 5-3 win over Buffalo, with attendance barely cracking 10,000.

The next season would be the first of four seasons I owned a 10-game package with the Panthers. I went to the home opener versus Philadelphia, and it was the most fun I had at a game since my first.

The Panthers ran riot that night in front of 19,000-plus fans, scoring 4 of their first 8 shots, chasing Steve Mason from the net, with Jagr and debutant Reilly Smith bagging two goals apiece.

Attendance dwindled following that night, dipping well under 13,000 on a consistent basis. Around the holiday period that year, everything changed, and games became more serious than ever before.

The Panthers surged to 12 straight wins, emerging as a dark horse contender for a wild-card spot that season. The fans came back in force, including a 20,000+ packed crowd that watched the Panthers blank the New York Rangers, putting Sunrise on the NHL map again.

The games I went to down the stretch of that season were incredible. The Panthers destroyed Tampa Bay 5-2 on January 23rd to emerge as the top dogs in the Atlantic Division in front of a wild atmosphere.

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Jaromir Jagr emerged to 2nd all-time in goals after netting twice in a 3-1 win over Winnipeg. Attendance during weekend games raised from a consistent 12,000 to a consistent 19,000 as the Cats roared to Atlantic Division Champions and back to the playoffs with home-ice advantage against the New York Islanders.

I went to two playoff games that year, Game 2 and Game 5. Game 5 was one of the most devastating experiences as a fan.

The Cats dominated the Islanders that night but just couldn’t get much going past Thomas Greiss. Barkov, after tying the game in regulation, missed a penalty shot in the first overtime before Alan Quine bagged the winner off a faceoff with 4:00 to go in 2OT.

While Game 5 was devastating in person, Game 6 was even worse. The Panthers looked certain to put the game away, up 1-0 and in the attacking zone with an empty net to force a Game 7.

We all know what happens next, the Panthers (to put it lightly) are denied a tripping penalty against Trocheck, the Islanders score, and then score again in 2OT to end a magical season.

While crying through those same half-tired, half-sad tears I experienced against New Jersey, both teams lined up and congratulated each other on a hard-fought season and series. This sport has my heart for these kinds of reasons.

The passion shown from the players rivals no other sport; my dedication to this team through dominant victories and heartbreaking defeats has remained as true as it was in 2011.

Six years later, I joined this site, where I have continued to make connections with this franchise, meeting staff members, interviewing personnel, and covering live games for the thousands of fans on Twitter.

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That same passion I show at BB&T Center is the same passion I show when I write, and I wouldn’t want to do it for any other hockey team, no matter the results.