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Building A Winning Team In Florida

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
By Dave Joseph for

Bill Torrey recalls having an indication of what kind of Panther team he had assembled shortly after the 1993 Expansion Draft.

Just weeks after selecting 24 players in Quebec City, including Scott Mellanby, Brian Skrudland, John Vanbiesbrouck, Tom Fitzgerald and Gord Murphy, Torrey brought a half dozen players to South Florida for a promotional tour.

“We brought them down in the middle of the hot summer, took them all over South Florida, from downtown Miami to play street ball to a mall in Palm Beach, and they were incredible,” Torrey recalled. “Whether they were playing ball in Miami or traveling in a van to Palm Beach, they were so optimistic, so positive. I remember telling (team owner H. Wayne Huizenga), ‘These guys are knocking themselves out. They’re into it.’ I guess, in retrospect, we saw the seeds of what was to come out of that group pretty early on.”

In fact, 10 of the players Torrey chose that morning in Quebec City turned out to be the core of the Panther team that made it to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals. Rob Niedermayer, Ed Jovanovski and Rhett Warrener, chosen in the Entry Drafts of 1993 and 1994, would also become key contributors to the Stanley Cup team.

Torrey, who served as president and governor of those early Panther teams, will join the rest of the ’96 team this weekend when they gather for a ‘Year of the Rat’ reunion game beginning at 2 p.m., at the BankAtlantic Center.

“That was a special group of players,” said Torrey, currently the Panthers’ alternate governor.

It was also a group brought together in large part by Torrey, who was named president of the franchise in April of ’93. Torrey came to the Panthers after spending 20 years with the Islanders. It was on Long Island where Torrey built a dynasty, winning four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1979-1983. Torrey built the team through the draft, selecting some of the most prominent players in the sport, including Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy and Bill Smith.

In retrospect, Torrey, who had been through expansion with the Islanders and California Seals, believes the Panthers were fortunate to draft the players they did in ’93.

“In the earlier expansion drafts the cupboard was pretty bare,” Torrey recalled. “Looking back now, the quality of the people we drafted, the character of the players, was as good as any team. And I remember (general manager) Bob (Clarke) and I were all upbeat (after the draft).

“We were fortunate that day. For instance, we got (Brian) Skrudland but never thought we’d get Tommy Fitzgerald. Of course, Beezer (Vanbiesbrouck) was a huge piece of it, but it was the quality of guys we got that day.”

The Panthers set records their first season for wins (33), points (83) and winning percentage (.494). After Clarke went back to Philadelphia, Torrey brought in Bryan Murray. And when Roger Neilson was let go after the 1994-95 season, Torrey brought in Doug MacLean as head coach. Torrey credits Lindy Ruff, then a Panther assistant, with serving as a valuable go-between during the change in coaches.
The rest is history, littered with toy rats.

“From the beginning they had a great attitude,” Torrey said. “It wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to an expansion team somewhere in the tropics.’ They came with something to prove, and they truly enjoyed being around one another. They were excited about coming here. And you know, people enjoyed being around them. Wayne (Huizenga) had gone through the whole expansion thing with the Marlins, but he liked being around the players. And both he and (wife) Marti loved going to the games.”

Looking back, Torrey calls the early years of the Panthers “exciting and exhilarating.” And he’s looking forward to the weekend reunion.

“It should be fun,” he says. “Not only for the players, but the fans as well.”

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