FLA Mikkola celebrates

EDMONTON -- Keith Yandle walked into the birthday party, ready to pick up his 11-year-old daughter. The kids had been instructed to dress up for the party, to wear a costume marking their favorite character. 

He did not expect what he found.

"Three of the girls had (Aleksander) Barkov jerseys," said Yandle, who has settled in South Florida after playing for the Florida Panthers for five seasons between 2016-21. "Just excited about the game. They're 10, 11 years old, but just excited about hockey, excited about having a winning team."

It's a scene that was effectively unimaginable a decade ago.

The Panthers have been in the NHL for 30 sometimes rocky seasons, a franchise that has struggled at times with attendance, with eyeballs, with success on the ice. They made the Stanley Cup Final in their third season, 1995-96, then made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in only four of the next 22 seasons.

But the past five years have seen the Panthers make the playoff each season, reach the elite of the NHL, winning the Presidents' Trophy in 2021-22, winning a round in the playoffs for the first time since that 1995-96 season, then making the Stanley Cup Final each of the past two seasons.

They now sit one win away from the Stanley Cup, leading the best-of-7 Final 3-0 against the Edmonton Oilers, a franchise that has won the Cup five times in its 44 seasons. And if the Panthers can win one more game, with their first chance on Saturday at Rogers Place (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, CBC, TVAS, SN), they will etch their names on the Cup and enter the history books.

Steve Goldstein, who has voiced the Panthers on TV and radio, and is currently the team's TV play-by-play broadcaster, has seen a lot in his 17 years with the club. But he's never seen this, where his days and nights are now full into June, where the hockey fans have come out of the woodwork and the non-hockey fans have joined in the party.

There is only one step left.

So, what does winning the Cup do for hockey in South Florida?

"It explodes it," Goldstein said.

* * * *

Hockey arrived in Florida in a hurry.

In 1992-93, the Tampa Bay Lightning played their first games. In 1993-94, the Panthers joined them.

There was success in those early seasons, more for the Panthers than the Lightning. Florida made a run to the Cup Final in its third season, losing in four games to the Colorado Avalanche. It would not return for 26 seasons, rarely even sniffing the postseason.

The Panthers played in Miami Arena in those days, a building that could get loud, an arena that gave rise to the tradition of the rat -- created when Scott Mellanby smashed a rat into the wall with his hockey stick, killing it and giving rise to thousands of plastic rodents thrown on the ice after goals and after wins -- and an arena that bore witness to the most playoff success the Panthers would have.

"It's a rabid fan base," said Bill Lindsay, who played seven seasons for the Panthers, including their inaugural season, the first Stanley Cup Final, and who serves as the team's radio color analyst. "Those early '90s, it was crazy. It was wild."

In 1998, the Panthers opened a new arena in Sunrise, Florida, about 34 miles from Miami and 14 miles from Fort Lauderdale.

But the good times ended, and the franchise went fallow.

"We kept promising our fan base during those times, 'it's going to get better,'" Lindsay said. "It was just tough. We're rolling through players, all kind of different coaches, general managers."

But this began to build in 2013, when Vincent Viola bought the team. Coach Joel Quenneville was hired on April 8, 2019, lending gravitas and a winning pedigree to what the Panthers were establishing. (Quenneville, who resigned on Oct. 28, 2021, in the wake of sexual assault allegations against a former Chicago Blackhawks video coach, is the second-winningest coach in NHL history, with 969 wins.)

It continued with the choice of Bill Zito, the general manager who was brought in on Sept. 2, 2020, and promptly went on a roster-building spree that saw him remake nearly the entire Panthers team in the next three years.

"There were hardly any playoff games played in this building, let alone wins," Goldstein said. "But it really started coming when Joel Quenneville got here and they were scoring a ton of goals and they were winning and they had that great series against Tampa four years ago. They lost in the first round.

"That's when it started. That's when the hockey fans that were maybe dormant came out. The last two years, you got all the non-hardcore hockey fans that are now part of the whole thing."

Which brings the Panthers to now, on the brink of a title, on the brink of greatness, on the brink of legitimacy in the eyes of some.

"A lot of what we consider to be incredibly well-built franchises have suffered when things aren't going well and then they get built," said Panthers coach Paul Maurice, who has the fourth most wins all-time (869) and who was named coach on June 22, 2022. "Carolina, when we were in Greensboro, I think we had 1,200 people one night for a game against Calgary. And if you win and you build a good program, you create an expanded fanbase that isn't necessarily then going to fluctuate with wins and losses all the time.

"You have to, over time, play an exciting game of hockey, but we'd like to be part of that and feel that we're a part of building something with deep enough roots that we would be considered a model franchise. And these runs are critical for that."

Trevor Kidd Bill Lindsay

* * * *

When the Panthers signed Shawn Thornton for the 2014-15 season, the fourth-line forward had seen what it was like to play for a championship team in an Original Six city, having spent the past seven seasons with the Boston Bruins, winning the Cup with them in 2011. 

He had seen intense buildings and diehard fans.

The Panthers second home game that season, on Oct. 13, 2014, drew 7,311 people to the then-BB&T Center against the Ottawa Senators.

The Panthers were in disarray. The tickets were devalued because of comps and it was hard to get paying customers in the seats.

"I saw a special the other day, it came across my desk, from like 11, 12 years ago," said Thornton, now the Chief Revenue Officer of the Panthers. "I think it said $7 tickets gets a free jersey and free concerts. It was crazy some of the things they used to do to try and get people in the building."

Thornton knows what it means to win the Cup. He has done it not only in the traditional hockey market of Boston, but also in a nontraditional market, winning with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. With the Ducks, it was the first title for Southern California -- nearby Los Angeles would not win until 2012 -- and it allowed the Ducks to invest in growing the game, in building new fans, in capturing the wallets and hearts of fans.

It's what the Panthers are in the process of creating. And what the Panthers are seeing pay off.

The numbers are staggering, with the Panthers investing in youth programming, trying to grow the game, to produce another Shayne Gostisbehere or another Brandon Duhaime, NHL players who each came out of South Florida.

"What they've done the last few years has been amazing and has been amazing for hockey down here," Yandle said. "You're going to see in the next 15 years, you're going to see more and more South Florida kids coming into the NHL and playing big roles in teams. I always go back to the Auston Matthews and Shane Doan effect (in Arizona) of having a guy to look up to."

They are in 523 schools with floor hockey programming, with 750 kids in learn to play this year. There has been a 73 percent increase in youth hockey participation since the current ownership bought the team 11 years ago, as opposed to an 11 percent increase nationally, including an 8.6 percent rise this year, compared with .49 percent nationally.

The Panthers know that when they introduce the game via learn to play or learn to skate, the spend on the team is five times what it is for a casual fan that walks in the door. Add that to the more than 200 community events they put on every year, and you see where they're going.

That will pay off, especially when added to the winning, to the success.

To a Cup.

It already is.

The moment that Thornton comes back to, now, is Jan. 3, 2023.

It was the answer to that night back in 2014 that had seen just 7,000 fans in the stands. It was a Tuesday night and the Arizona Coyotes were in town to play the Panthers, a team mired in seventh place in the Atlantic Division, though it would later go on to the Cup Final.

The stands were filled, with 19,484 fans.

"It was always with the Florida Panthers, you get a nontraditional market on a Tuesday night, nobody is showing up," Thornton said. "And that was the moment where I'm like, 'wow, the organization's there.' When we're selling out on a Tuesday against Arizona after Christmas, that means we're getting to where we need to be."

Shawn Thornton FLA

* * * *

As Yandle walks his dogs in his neighborhood, he notes all the TVs that are tuned to Panthers games, and not just in the playoffs. He fields questions at his kids' schools and on the golf course. It's what Thornton is being asked about when he goes to jiu jitsu by people who have never before watched hockey.

They see the investment.

"It's an every-day topic," Yandle said. "People are talking about the Cats and how well they're doing, what they've meant to this community."

Florida has become a place where players want to play, where they can ride golf carts to the newly built practice facility, the Baptist Health IcePlex in Fort Lauderdale, where they can keep boats and enjoy the weather year-round. They have attracted top talent, like Matthew Tkachuk, who signed an eight-year contract with the Panthers on July 22, 2022, after a trade from the Calgary Flames, and in turn has brought in new fans and attracts even more talent to the Panthers.

But that is all predicated on winning. Because players don't just come for the weather, enduring playing in front of sparse crowds and people who could take or leave them.

"The hockey ops department has done an amazing job of making this a destination franchise," Thornton said. "Players want to be here, they want to play here, they want to win here. Our fan base has long been committed and now it's growing and they're really excited about what they've seen over the last three, four years."

There are now kids of 12 or 13 or 14 who barely remember a time when the Panthers weren't good, when they weren't a team that made the playoffs every single season. They only know a prestige franchise, a franchise that stands among the best in the NHL.

"It's brought a lot more people to the party," Goldstein said. "There are people that weren't really hockey fans that are now Panthers fans. And you see the gear everywhere. It's hard to go anywhere now without somebody yelling something. Everybody loves a winner."

Already, the season ticket base has seen exponential growth, with the lower bowl sold out, the club level sold out, almost all the premium inventory gone, the upper level nearly there, with ticket revenue up 46 percent from 2021-22 to 23-23 and corporate revenue up 225 percent in the same time period.

"What I've seen is our brand has just grown a lot in the last 10 years, organically and with a lot of hard work," Thornton said. "And then when you pour winning onto it, you're pouring gasoline onto the fire."

* * * *

Last season, when Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final ended and the dream had died and Lindsay wrapped up his call and the Vegas Golden Knights started celebrating their Cup win and the Panthers had officially lost their chance, Lindsay turned his back.

He couldn't watch.

"Because it's no longer a reality," he said. "The only way for me to ever touch the Cup would be part of an organization. I was lucky enough to fall into broadcasting with not just a team but the team that kind of ran through my blood and I identified with.

"So yeah, it's emotional. Last year was emotional, this ride's emotional. You become so invested in it. … It's a roller coaster, but that would be the dream. I've never put my actual hands on that Cup and if this team did win it, yes, I would at some point hopefully get to stand there and touch it."

It would mean the world to Lindsay, a man who has bled for the Panthers since their inception. It would mean the world to the Panthers fans who have been there from the start, now 30 years ago, without much hope for long stretches, who have finally seen their team morph from a franchise to joke about to one to envy. It would mean keeping, maybe forever, the hearts of those who have jumped in over the past couple of seasons, being won over by the winning and the sport and the Panthers themselves.

It would mean everything.

And it's hard not to think, if the Panthers can pull this off, after making the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back seasons, that the franchise that might not stop at one Cup.

They have been building for this. They are built for this.

"There's a validation to it," Lindsay said. "Look at Toronto, 1967, how hard this is to do. And now you've got 32 teams. It's tougher than ever. You could ask any franchise, the ones that have struggled and not won it, if I said right now, you're going to suffer for eight years, but in the eighth year you're going to win a Stanley Cup, they would all sign up for it in a heartbeat.

"It would mean you've reached the pinnacle. You've reached the mountain."