Monday, April 16, 2012

Year of the Rat: a Remembrance

I'm usually not one to go around crediting the media with much of anything, but I have to hand it to NBC. Someone made a fabulous decision, to show all of the Stanley Cup playoff games by using multiple channels. It's really the only way to get into hockey playoffs, immersing yourself in the experience and following the in-series story-lines. Currently, there's a hot one brewing in the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia one. Yesterday's game--won by the Flyers 8-4--featured 158 minutes in penalties, multiple brawls, and the tossing of three players. That puts the Flyers in a position to sweep the Penguins, the highest scoring team in the NHL this season and an odds-on favorite to win the Cup.

Meanwhile, here in South Florida, the Panthers are back in the playoffs for the first time in over a decade and managed to wrest a victory last night from their opponents, the New Jersey Devils. For those unfamiliar with the backstory, who don't find it shocking that a hockey team in South Florida hasn't made the playoffs in a long time, I'd like to give you that backstory, which--while very interesting--also has an object lesson buried within...

The Florida Panthers came into existence in 1992. That was when the NHL awarded a franchise to South Florida and H. Wayne Huzienga. To get that franchise, real interest in hockey had to be demonstrated, including a presale of season tickets to establish a base. And I was, in fact, a part of that initial group who handed over money for the promise of a team. The venue for the team was the Miami Arena--now demolished--originally built for the Heat in 1988. The arena had easy access from the Miami transit system--the MetroRail--and this became hugely important, as we shall see.

The team entered the NHL in the 1993-94 season with a rag-tag group of castoffs and rookies. Amazingly, the team finished the year with just under a .500 winning percentage, barely missing the playoffs. Quite a feat for a first year expansion team. The following season went much the same way: a 500 year and an almost playoff berth. However, many people outside of South Florida were unhappy with the Panthers' success. They complained that the Panthers were ruining the game of hockey with their trapping, clutch-and-grab defense.

At the same time, the team's GM--Bryan Murray--was unhappy with the incredible results of the team thus far. He felt coach Roger Neilson wasn't developing the rookies and younger players enough and that the middle-of-the-road success of the team was depriving the fledgling franchise of much-needed high draft picks. So, he dumped Neilson in favor of Doug McLean, a man who had never before been a head coach in the NHL.

Up to that point, the team had drawn well. Most fans used the afore-mentioned MetroRail to get to games and on game nights, MetroRail cars were full of people in Panthers' jerseys, looking forward to a fun evening of hockey. My wife and I would drive a short distance to the MetroRail station by the University of Miami and take the short trip to the arena. On nights when work prevented one or both of us from attending a game, we ether brought a friend or gave our tickets away, often to people who had never been to a hockey game.

But there was some trepidation for the the 1995-96 season; people were used to Neilson's success and were unsure what would happen without him. Opening night that year--after a road loss to New Jersey--was aganst Calgary and the Panthers pulled out a 4-3 win, with Scott Mellanby scoring a pair of goals. And this would become legendary, for after the game the Panthers' goalie--John Vanbiesbrouck--would note with humor that Mellanby had killed a rat with his stick in the dressing room before the game, thus the two goals gave Mellanby a "rat trick."

Understand that there was, at the time, a goofy love affair between the Panthers and a segment of the football-crazy Miami populace. This played out mostly on the local sports radio channel WQAM, with the morning crew know as the First Team. The "rat trick" line got a lot of play and it led--a few games later--to someone tossing a rubber rat onto the ice after a Panthers' goal, as opposed to throwing a hat on the ice to celebrate a "hat trick." Thus, a tradition was born (which would, after the season, lead the NHL to implement new rules concerning throwing things on the ice).

And--against all odds--the Panthers started winning, mostly minus the clutch-and-grab defense of the last two years. Take a look at the team stats from the season. Mellanby topped the team with 32 goals and 70 points. The team's captain--center Brian Skrudland--had only 7 goals and 20 points. The top +/- man was leftwing Bill Lindsay at +13. These are not the numbers--or least had never been the numbers--of a top-tier team. Yet, in the first half of the season, the Panthers stormed through the NHL posting a record of 27-12-2.

They struggled through the second half of the season--compared to the first--but still finished well above .500 at 41-31-10, easily securing a playoff berth. And all the while, as the season progressed, the rats had been accumulating and the fan base had been growing. By the times the playoffs started, Panther flags on cars were a regular sight on South Florida roads. MetroRail rides to games were like party buses, with chants and songs, and all around good feelings.

The team had captured the hearts of the region, not only because they won, but because they were fun and largely unencumbered by the baggage of superstars. They didn't have any, aside from the goalie Vanbiesbrouck. The players would often--when in town--hold court in local pubs and eateries, fully accessible to the average fan. Seeing a player at the mall or at a movie was no big deal; they seemed to be just like everyone else. It was a memorable time, about to get even better.

The Panthers faced Boston in the first round, winning the series 4-1. The conference semi-finals saw the Panthers taking on the team that had become their biggest rival during the season, the Philadelphia Flyers. In a hard fought series with several overtime games, the Panthers prevailed 4-2, sending them into the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh, a team loaded with superstars like Lemieux, Jagr, Nedved, and Zubov. The series went seven games, with the Panthers winning game six in dramatic come-from-behind fashion at home in the Miami Arena to force a game seven.

The rats pouring out of the stands that evening--when the Panthers took a 4-3 lead in the third period--were like a tsunami. Pittsburgh goalie Tom Barraso retreated into his net to avoid the deluge. From an early game--following a Panthers goal--this is what it looked like:

And thus, the Panthers headed to the Stanley Cup finals, to face the Colorado Avalanche, laden with even more talent than Pittsburgh, including world-beater goalie Patrick Roy. The Panthers were swept 4-0. But to complete the sweep, Colorado was forced to go into triple overtime, deep into the night, at the Miami Arena. Panther fans cheered the Cup Champions in a classic display of sportsmanship, unable to deliver any rats that evening, as the Avalanche won 1-0.

Yet still, it was an unparalleled accomplishment for a third-year team, reaching the Stanley Cup finals. And it was wholly unexpected when the season began. The reason for the success? Attitude, first and foremost. And a team full of players that genuinely liked each other, that liked the fans and their community, that simply wanted to give it their best each game. There were no huge pay days at the end of the year for these players. The older ones finished out their careers; only a handful of the younger ones went on to "big things." Most were--at best--second tier players in the NHL.

The glory of the 1995-96 season has never been recaptured in South Florida. I question if it is even repeatable, anywhere. For the superstar mentality still seems to rule in professional sports and really, that's too bad. Because the atmosphere of the season, in the Arena and out of it, was the thing. It actually brought people together. For a brief time, even South Florida roads were a kinder, gentler place, as fans happily honked at each other, rather than flipping each other off in anger.

This was the Year of the Rat, and I'm lucky to have been there for it.

Cheers, all.


  1. I haven't been to South Florida since 1995. How is it getting to games now in Sunrise?

  2. It stinks. I dropped my season tickets when they moved North. And the atmosphere there has never been as good.