Florida Panthers players, their families and their pets will evacuate South Florida on Friday in anticipation of Hurricane Irma making landfall there this weekend, with some members of the organization staying behind to help with relief efforts.
Panthers president Matthew Caldwell spent the past couple of days trying to make plans to get everyone who was in Sunrise, Florida, for training camp and the now-cancelled rookie tournament out before the storm hits.
The plane is scheduled to leave Friday morning for Boston carrying players Aleksander Barkov, Jason Demers, Aaron Ekblad, Roberto Luongo, Derek MacKenzie, Mike Matheson, James Reimer, Vincent Trocheck and Radim Vrbata, along with Brandon Pirri, who was signed on a tryout; rookies; coaching staff; trainers; members of hockey operations; and everyone's family members and their pets (20 in total).
The level of concern from those evacuating had been rising, especially because most of them hadn't experienced a real hurricane scare and commercial flights out of South Florida were sold out by Tuesday. Hurricane Wilma, the last major storm to hit South Florida, was responsible for 87 deaths and caused $2 million in damage to BB&T Center in October 2005.
The Panthers' charter services don't begin until the preseason, so Caldwell had to scramble to arrange for a plane from Swift Air, part-owned by Panthers owner Vinnie Viola. The plane has more cargo space than their normal aircraft to hold all of the necessary hockey equipment. The Panthers chose Boston because of its proximity to their AHL affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts and will begin training camp there on Sept. 23 if they are unable to return to Sunrise. Caldwell estimates the cost to evacuate will be about $150,000.
Caldwell is part of a small contingent who will sleep at BB&T Center and assist emergency crews through the weekend. The Panthers also bought 30 cots for themselves and anyone who may get stranded.
"I just think it's important for the Panthers to be leaders and stewards in the community and physically be here with the cops and firefighters and commissioners," Caldwell told NHL.com. "When you're on the ground with people, you never know what's going to happen. If we're all out of here and I'm sitting in Boston, it's hard to coordinate all that."
Caldwell also worked with officials to use the arena as a storage facility for emergency vehicles and to house police and fire rescue officers. The arena's location is a relatively safe spot with the benefit of the Everglades on one side and about 20 miles of land between it and the ocean on the other to potentially slow down the storm.
"We just feel like, of course, safety is important, we want to make sure our team is good, but just as important is trying to assist," Caldwell said. "We're a professional sports franchise with great fans and great people that have always supported us, so we wanted to be there for the community, so we'll be out there trying to help out and volunteering and doing whatever we can."