SUNRISE, Fla. – When the Florida Panthers officially joined the National Hockey League prior to the start of the 1993-94 season, the organization chose a man behind a mask to serve as the face of the fledgling franchise.
With their first pick in the 1993 NHL Expansion draft, the Panthers selected goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck from the New York Rangers, bringing immediate legitimacy to the upstart organization and breathing new life into the veteran netminder’s career.
“I think that team, when we started, had such a great group of guys, and [Vanbiesbrouck] was the leader,” said Panthers radio color analyst Billy Lindsay, a teammate of Vanbiesbrouck’s from 1993-1998. “We didn’t have superstars on the ice, as far as forwards and defensemen, but we had a superstar in net, and it was John Vanbiesbrouck.”
With Vanbiesbrouck between the pipes, the Panthers quickly became one of the most successful expansion teams in NHL history, reaching the Stanley Cup Final in only their third season of existence in 1996.
“We knew he was going to keep us in every game and give us a chance to win,” Lindsay said. “That’s what made our team successful.”
On Tuesday, Vanbiesbrouck’s contributions to the Panthers, as well as to the growth of hockey in the Sunshine State as a whole, were recognized when he joined eight other athletes, coaches and broadcasters in being inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood.
“It’s special for me,” Vanbiesbrouck said of his enshrinement. “You never realize how much you connect with people until you grow up. Now that I’m grown up, I realize this. It’s such a great honor to me. I tried to play hard when I played. I tried to play with character and integrity. This is a wonderful payback.”
A native of Detroit, Mich., Vanbiesbrouck, more commonly referred as “Beezer” during his 19 seasons in the NHL, played in 882 games and recorded 374 wins, the most ever for an American-born netminder. He was honored with the NHL’s Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender in 1986 and was a runner-up for the award in 1994.
In five seasons with the Panthers, Vanbiesbrouck played in 268 games, winning 106.
“When we made our run in ’96, people threw rats,” a reminiscent Vanbiesbrouck said. “We didn’t win a Stanley Cup, but we won the fans over. That’s what it’s all about.”
Vanbiesbrouck will join former Tampa Bay Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk, who was inducted in 2011, as the only hockey players in the Florida Sports Hall of Fame.
“To have Dave [Andreychuk] call me and say, ‘You’re going into the South Florida Sports Hall of Fame,” it was special,” said Vanbiesbrouck. “I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t know what to say. I’m just grateful and honored.”
The general manager and director of hockey operations for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the United States Hockey League, Vanbiesbrouck still cherishes the time he spent in South Florida and continues to embrace his role as the team’s first “Mr. Panther”.
“It’s a special time whenever you connect with fans and they respond in such a significant way,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “That’s why we play the game and that’s why I think most people should.”
Now 52, and with a wealth of accolades marking the triumphs of his past, Vanbiesbrouck will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t measure his success by the amount of games he won and lost, but rather the role he played in building the foundation for hockey in South Florida.
“We have 12 players in [the USHL] from the state of Florida,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “The roots that are being laid here are going a lot farther than people think.”