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For Panthers, 1996 was 'Year of the Rat'

by Evan Weiner
There are certain traditions in the NHL. An octopus is thrown from the stands in Detroit before the Red Wings' first home playoff game. Hats are tossed onto the ice after a player scores three goals in a game. Montreal fans, upset at officials, once threw toe rubbers onto the ice to show their displeasure.

And between 1995 and 1996, the fans of the then 3-year-old Florida Panthers had their own ritual. They threw plastic rats on the ice after a Panthers goal at the now demolished Miami Arena. Not only was 1996 the "Year of the Rat," according to the Chinese calendar, but it was also the "Year of the Panthers' Rat."
The plastic rat tossing came about after Scott Mellanby saw a rat running through the team's dressing room at the old Miami Arena and "one-timed" it against a wall, which ended the rat's existence on Oct. 8, 1995. Apparently Mellanby was the only Panther willing to stand up to the rat. Mellanby also scored twice that night in the Panthers' home opener against the Calgary Flames, a 4-3 victory, which led goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck to quip that Mellanby had a "rat trick." Two home games later, the plastic rats made their debut in a victory against Ottawa. The hockey team and the Panthers fans had bonded over a rat.
And so a tradition was born for a team that played just 135 games before the Senators-Panthers contest in the non-traditional hockey area that is Miami.

"It was something that South Florida really grabbed a hold of, Scott Mellanby and that whole thing," said Ray Sheppard, who was acquired by the Panthers in a trade with San Jose at the March 1996 trade deadline. "At the time, it was great. It was one of those things where every time you score, the place just went crazy. It was good for the whole team and you can rally behind it."
Fortunately for the Panthers players, the visiting team, the officials, the off-ice officials and the Miami Arena maintenance staff, fans came armed with just the plastic rats.
"No real ones came on the ice," laughed Sheppard.
The rat became the rallying point for the team.
Sheppard came to a team that was seeking an identity, a team that was put together less than 10 months after the NHL awarded Miami and Anaheim franchises at a December 1992 owners meeting. The Panthers just missed making the playoffs in 1993-94 and again in 1994-95. The 1993-94 Florida team was the NHL's most successful first-year expansion team ever. And team owner Wayne Huizenga wasn't shy about throwing a plastic rat onto the ice. He joined in on the fun.
"I guess when you are as successful as Wayne Huizenga, you can do pretty well do what you want at hockey games," said Sheppard. "They really enjoyed it, grabbed a hold and it was really nice."
Sheppard got to Miami in March 1996 and during his time at the Miami Arena, which lasted until 1998, he never saw a real rat in the room.
He also got to participate in what was a great and unexpected playoff run. Florida finished the season as the fourth-best team in the Eastern Conference with 92 points and took on the Boston Bruins. Florida beat Boston in the opening series in five games, then upset the Eastern Conference's No. 1 team, the Eric Lindros-led Philadelphia Flyers, in six games. Florida knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games. Pittsburgh featured Mario Lemieux, who led the League in scoring with 69 goals and 161 points, Jaromir Jagr, who had 62 goals and 149 points and Ron Francis, who had 27 goals and 92 assists. But Pittsburgh could only score 14 goals against Panthers goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck. Florida finally lost to Colorado in the Stanley Cup Final in four games.
Sheppard loved the run, but said the raining down of rats onto the ice became a distraction for him and his teammates after a while. Sheppard knew about hockey tradition -- he was a member of four Detroit Red Wings playoff teams and saw the octopus ending up on ice at Detroit playoff games and as a member of the Buffalo Sabres knew the history of Jim Lorentz killing a bat during a playoff game in 1975 -- but he admitted that the rats on ice differed from the octopus throwing because of sheer volume.
"In all honesty, it slows up the game a little bit," he said. "Once you get momentum when you score, it sort of kills it a bit. But it comes to a point where enough is enough."  
"At the time, it was great. It was one of those things where every time you score, the place just went crazy. It was good for the whole team and you can rally behind it." -- Ex-Panther Ray Sheppard
During the 1996 playoff run, it was estimated that Florida fans threw about 2,000 rats onto the ice during one game and there is a picture of Colorado goaltender Patrick Roy and linesman Ray Scapinello ducking for cover inside the net as the rats came down from the stands. Florida's season ended in a triple-overtime Game 4 thriller when Uwe Krupp beat Vanbiesbrouck.
Sheppard had a great playoff run as Florida's second-leading scorer with 8 goals and 8 assists.
The NHL cracked down on the rat throwing and the tradition ended rather quickly. It was a passing fad. Rat throwing in South Florida and toe rubber throwing in Montreal have been relegated to the history and folklore books.

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