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From the rink to the beach

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

There’s a running joke that part of playing hockey in Florida means wearing flip-flops to the rink and hitting the beach as often as possible.

Turns out, it’s true.

Chris Higgins, a member of the Florida Panthers for 48 games during the 2010-11 season, wore flip-flops to the rink and he spent a lot of his off-ice time at the beach.

Wouldn’t you?

Many Canadians, including myself, sometimes think a little less of our brothers in the Southeast Division because they play in hotbeds that don’t traditionally remind us of hockey.

They don’t live and breathe it like we do, and that’s different, so it must be wrong.

I’ve been corrected, Florida’s hockey scene is simply misunderstood.

“It’s pretty much summer all the time here and if we were home, I was pretty much at the beach all the time,” said Higgins, who was traded from Florida to Vancouver at the trade deadline last season.

“But that’s not all hockey in Florida is. Obviously it’s a lot different than playing in Canada, that’s for sure. I thought the fans were way better than what I was expecting. If we were a better team, there would have been some better fans, but I enjoyed playing in this building and I enjoyed being a Panther, it was a fun time in my career.”

It was a but a brief layover for Higgins between playing for the Montreal Canadiens, Calgary Flames, New York Rangers and now the Canucks. Throw Florida into that mix and one of these things is definitely not like the others.

It’s not Florida’s fault it’s warm year-round, but the fact the Panthers own the NHL’s longest stretch without a post-season appearance at 10 years and the third longest drought in terms of winning a playoff series at 14 seasons, means there hasn’t been much to cheer about.

Without much to cheer about, the fan base has remained a tight-knit, passionate bunch. That should be as noticeable as ever when the Canucks face the Panthers Monday night at the BankAtlantic Center, especially compared to the insanity that was in the Boston Garden.

The Panthers are currently atop the Southeast Division with a record of 20-13-8 through 41 games and if they can maintain that pace and break their playoff spell, all bets are off.

The last time Florida won a post-season series, 1995-96, it won three consecutive to make the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Final appearance. Dave Lowry, Ray Sheppard and Stu Barnes were putting up points, while John Vanbiesbrouck stopped pucks. The rats, they were a flying.

Keith Ballard, a Panther for two full seasons from 2008 to 2010, agrees winning is the only thing he was missing in Florida.

“The people here are friendly, the organization treated me real well and my family and I enjoyed our time here,” said Ballard. “Obviously anybody can look at the weather and say it’s nice living by the beach when it’s 80 degrees and sunny everyday, but I liked everything about it. It was disappointing we weren’t successful when I was here, that was the only thing missing.”

Part of falling fifth in the pecking order behind the Miami Heat, Florida Marlins, Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins is anonymity. Did people know who Higgins and Ballard were? Sure, they simply didn’t have their licence plates memorized like in Vancouver.

There’s a time and place for both being under the microscope and not making headlines every time you sneeze.

“Before I came to Vancouver, that was all I knew,” said Ballard. “There’s definitely times you appreciate the crazy hockey-mad cities and that microscope and there’s definitely times you appreciate being a little bit secluded and hidden a little bit. There’s room for both.”

Roberto Luongo, who played in Florida for five-seasons and remains the franchise leader in career wins (108) and shutouts (26), credits the Panthers with helping him become the goaltender he is today.

“They gave me a chance to become a starter in the NHL and establish myself, so I had some great years here,” he said. “Unfortunately we never made the playoffs, but I definitely jump-started my career.”

In terms of popularity, Luongo said he is recognized more since he left than when he actually played here. That’s no dig at Panthers fans; the Canucks keeper couldn’t stress enough how much he enjoyed his time in Florida. He met his wife while playing here and will retired here when it’s all said and done.

Ballard, a Minnesotan, will likely head back to the cold when his playing days are through. He’s keeping his warm memories of Florida banked until then.

“I didn’t go to the beach much, I lived about 20 minutes from it. But I did spend some time at a pool in my yard, so I spent some time at a pool,” he laughed, before reminiscing about how he used to look like beef jerky from all the sun he got in Florida.

“I really did have a great tan. I always have a nice tan, except for now.”

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