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Panthers' on-ice success is attracting more fans

by Alain Poupart

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers will close the most successful December in their history on Tuesday, and the success on the ice is beginning to be reflected in the stands.

The Panthers headed into their game against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday with a 10-3-0 record in December; the 20 points are a Panthers record for the month.

Florida extended its winning streak to six games Sunday with a 3-2 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The crowd of 16,902 at BB&T Center was a pleasant surprise and perhaps an indication the Panthers are winning over fans. It was the third-highest crowd of the season, behind the season opener against the Philadelphia Flyers and a game against the New York Rangers, a team that always draws well in South Florida.

Columbus doesn't fall under that category, particularly on a Sunday night during football season.

"Obviously we were thrilled selling out opening night, but we walked up some 2,500 people [against Columbus],"???executive chairman Peter Luukko said Tuesday before the game against Montreal. "And if you saw the crowd, to see the fans start that 'Let's Go Panthers' chant, and it started organically; it wasn't motivated by a scoreboard or a cheerleader or a mascot, it was a pure hockey chant.

"You know, Sunday at 6, holiday weekend, Columbus isn't one of the Original Six teams, and to do the kind of numbers we did were fantastic. Our business heading forward is very, very strong. We're selling a lot of tickets every day, not just for the next game but for all the games. We're pretty excited about that. We just look forward to the continued good play. Not everything is roses. We're on a run right now, and there'll be bumps in the road. But when you take three steps forward as opposed to one backwards, it's pretty cool."

Luukko said the recent Broward County vote to give the Panthers $86 million in public funds has helped in terms of fan support because it eliminated speculation that they could wind up relocating.

The biggest factor, though, has been the Panthers' performance on the ice.

"It's been a pretty exciting time right now obviously, winning these six games in a row,"???Luukko said. "Importantly, you're beginning to see the progress of the team."

Luukko didn't hesitate when asked whether he thought the Panthers were a playoff team.

"Yes, we do,"???he said. "We're certainly right in the mix, and I know we can play with anybody."

Luukko is confident there will be a lot of people at the BB&T???Center to watch the Panthers attempt to prove him right.

"Right now we don't have a game [the rest of the season]???that'll be below 12,000,"???Luukko said. "That's our worst. And then we're trending to some of the other bigger games: 15, 16 to 17,000. That's right now. That's without selling another ticket. That is strong. I understand holidays have been strong, but it's been more of a casual thing. To see the passion is the exciting piece. This team hasn't done 2,500 walk-ups in a long time. I think that's good."

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