A hard-hitting leader who never backed down from a brawl, Laus embodied the hard-working, blue-collar style of game the Florida Panthers brought to the table during the early days of the franchise. Breaking into the league in 1993-94, the plucky expansion club exceeded expectations in their first year with a patchwork roster of players assembled through the expansion draft and were anchored by goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck in net. Part of that group was a young Laus, looking to make his stay in the NHL.
Laus was originally selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round (37th overall) of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft. The pugnacious defenseman spent the next few years within the Penguins organization, playing in the minor leagues during the time the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in back-to-back years (1991-92).
Laus was claimed by Florida in the 1993 Expansion Draft as a potential piece of their future on the blueline, and were they ever right. Laus went on to play for the Panthers until 2002, playing 530 games for Florida, recording 72 points (14-58—72) and a franchise-leading 1,702 penalty minutes. Laus ranks sixth all-time in games played for Florida and holds the distinction of being the only Panther within the franchise’s top-30 in games played to play his entire NHL career for Florida. A career in the NHL is a dream come true for any young hockey player, but Laus never expected a call telling him that he would be living out that dream in South Florida.
“I was actually on my honeymoon at the time when I got the phone call that there was a team in Florida,” recalled Laus. “At the time I didn’t even know there was one, so it was a great surprise. We were in Las Vegas, my wife and I had just gotten married. It was a big step for us. We had no idea what we were getting into, we knew nothing about Florida. We got to know it really quick in the next couple of weeks.”
Laus settled into a team full of players, like himself who were plucked out of the expansion draft. Many of the players seated around Laus in the locker room would go on to be his teammates for years to come.
“I think the first year we were there, we were kind of given a bye because [we] were a new team, but we surprised a lot of people that year. With Roger Nielsen being the coach, I think he instilled a lot of things, like the defensive coaching and the defensive style that we were known for two years later and being a hard-working defensive team.”
A member of the 1996 Panthers team that made a memorable run to the Stanley Cup Finals, Laus was a solid presence on the back end. The bruising defenseman punished his opposition with crushing hits and the occasional fight. Laus looks back at those days fondly.
“It put Hockey in Florida on the map down there,” said Laus about the 1996 Eastern Conference Champion Panthers. “It gave an identity to a brand new team. At the time a lot of people were questioning why there was a team down in Florida. I think the team we had, was not stocked full superstars or anything, but full of hard working guys that had spent two years together. It was almost like everything came together in that one ’96 year. Through coaches, different players and different moves, there was just a different vibe going in that year, from the previous two years.”
Of course the tradition of Panthers fans throwing rats on the ice began that year, which Laus has vivid memories of how the tradition began.
“I still can remember the day we were down in Miami Arena and the rat comes through the door and we’re about to go on the ice,” recounts Laus. “I’m not going to say [who] but a couple of guys kind of scurried, or were a little afraid of the rat. But Scott [Mellanby] saw it, it came right at him and I remember it like it was yesterday. It was like a slapshot and it hit the wall, made this sound and we didn’t think anything of it. He went out and scored two goals that night and we won. But obviously the momentum carried through the rest of the year.”
Mellanby’s ‘Rat Trick’ became local legend and gave birth to a phenomenon in South Florida as fans would pelt the ice with rubber and plastic rats after a Panthers goal.
“At the time you don’t think about it. But when you look back it’s amazing the amount [of rats] that were thrown on the ice,” said Laus. “I remember a couple of my neighbors down there had told me that you couldn’t find any rats at any of the stores down there. I don’t know where they were getting them. I think people were sending them in from upstate.”
Never the flashiest player on the ice, the gritty blueliner established a special connection with the fans off the ice in South Florida. His willingness to do the game’s dirty work made him a fan favorite.
“The fans embraced me and the whole team,” said Laus. “Even my family, we got to know a lot of the fans personally. When we played down in Miami it was a different arena down there. You’d park across the street so when you came out, you’d interact with the fans a lot more. You actually went through the crowd, shook hands with people and sign autographs. At the time the fans really did appreciate that, that there was that interaction. It was more than just a guy with a helmet on at the game. They got to interact with you and get to know you too. When kids can come to a rink at any given time and see their favorite players out on the ice, that’s something they’ll always have with them. “”
Never playing with an “inflated ego or driving half-million dollar cars”, Laus and the rest of the Panthers team he came up with in the early days felt fans could relate to them on a personal level, which he credits to the connection the Panthers had with the community
“The guys from the ’96 team, they had SUVs with baby seats in the back. It was a family atmosphere. I think when fans see that they can relate to you. I think that’s where that connection came, the relatability that a lot of the players, these hardworking guys [can connect] with the hardworking people down there.”
Well-known for his fighting prowess and his reputation as an enforcer, Laus had only one NHL season where his penalty minute total dipped below 100 (and it was because he was limited to 25 games in 2000-01). Fighting is still a part of the game today, but during Laus’ playing days things were a bit different when it came to the enforcer role.
“Back in the 90’s every team had two or three guys. It was almost like take your pick of which guy.”
Laus believes that during this time the late Bob Probert was the “measuring stick” for his role, calling him the “main big guy” at that time, followed by Tony Twist, who Laus described as “a body builder” on the ice.
With countless fights in his career, some that stand out as the most memorable were against long-time Buffalo Sabres forward Rob Ray.
“I always ended up fighting Rob Ray,” laughed Laus. “His jersey used to always come off, so those are pretty memorable.”
A hotly debated topic over the years has been the place of fighting within the present and future of the game. Laus knows that part of his job during his career was to drop the gloves time to time, but the idea of taking it out is not something Laus agrees with.
“You never want to see someone get hurt, but I understand the role [it plays] in the game. With talk about trying to take it out now, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Laus led by example in during his time as a Panther, playing each shift like his last. In his final season of play, Laus was named Captain in his final NHL season (2001-02) sharing the duty with Pavel Bure. Unfortunately, a wrist injury ended his season before Laus would retire from the game.
“It was a great honor, something I’ve always cherished,” said Laus about serving as team Captain. “It wasn’t very long, but it was a very big honor. I got hurt not too far after. The guys that were [Captain]before me like Scott Mellanby and Brian Skrudland, these are the types of guys you looked up to as a young guy and kind of taught you and molded you almost to them. The way they played, the way they acted on the ice and off the ice. Maybe I rubbed off on a few guys that way too, I couldn’t tell you, but I hope I did.”
During his last two seasons in Florida, Laus played alongside a young Roberto Luongo, who at the time was just entering his second season in the NHL and his first with Florida. Although inexperienced and in his early twenties, Laus believes Luongo has panned out just as good as he was advertised to be.
“It’s great to see. At the time he was just a young kid coming in touted to be what he is today. It’s really great to see him come back [to Florida]. To say that you played with a guy who could be a future hall of famer, or a guy that is up there in most wins… he was a really good guy, good team guy and I’m really happy he’s doing well. I wish that upon any of the guys I played with.”
“I coach a kid’s hockey team and our goalie is a big Roberto fan. He always says to me ‘what was he like?’ and I go, ‘it’s too far back for me to remember’.”
Coaching youth hockey outside of Toronto in his spare-time, Laus now works for the family business in St. Catharines, Ontario with his sister, Janet. Laus’ three children, Lexi, Kylie and Nick grew up around the Panthers when they were still very young, but that was a long time ago now it seems to their father.
“My kids are grown up now. I’ve got one going to college next year, one in grade 12 next year and my son starts high school next year, so time really does fly.”
The 44-year old Laus may be removed from South Florida, but still follows the Panthers through social media. Being familiar with the South Florida market as well as the Panthers success this season, Laus recognizes what the Panthers have gone through as a franchise and how winning can solve any difficulties.
“Being on twitter I see a lot of people who follow me tweet out stuff about the Panthers. I understand the growing pains over the last couple of years. It comes with winning. They are winning now and I think the fans are coming out now too. I know down in Florida if you’re not winning, it’s a tough market. But if you’re winning the fans will get behind you.”
The Panther alum enjoys watching players in the NHL today like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos but Panthers rookie defenseman, Aaron Ekblad has also caught his eye as well. Ekblad in his first season has shattered the Panthers franchise scoring record for rookie defensemen, (21 points) set in 1995-96 by Laus’ former teammate, Ed Jovanovski. Being a number one overall draft choice, like Jovanovski and Ekblad can come with a lot of pressure, but Laus believes a market like South Florida can be a positive place for a young, developing player.
“I played with Eddie (Jovanovski) when he was 19. It’s a big adjustment, going from playing against teenagers to playing grown men with teenage kids. I think it’s the right market for him [Ekblad]. South Florida is great, but if you don’t want to be recognized or if you want go about your own day, you can go unnoticed.”
The man behind South Florida’s ‘Laus Enforcement’ can still find his name and number 3 on the backs of Panthers fan’s jerseys at BB&T Center on game days, as well as his spot in the Panthers Den of Honor at the arena. An original Panther and a beloved member of the team’s history, Laus’ leadership, dedication to the franchise and willingness to stand up for his teammates still resonates with Panthers fans to this day.