FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Florida Panthers walked the red carpet on Wednesday, swapping their sweaters for suits in an effort to raise money at the second-annual Cats & Cocktails event at Louie Bossi's Ristorante in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
"It's pretty amazing and it's really awarding," Florida Panthers Foundation Executive Director Lauren Simone said. "The players are so generous when they come here and they know that every dollar they raise goes out to the community.
"Last year, we raised over $100,000 and we're expecting to raise even more money this year. For me, it's just amazing to see people that genuinely want to help the community and raise money. It's really special."
The organization's biggest fundraiser of the year, the black-tie event succeeded in smashing Simone's hopeful benchmark, earning a whopping $150,000 that will now be used to support the four main priorities of the team's foundation - youth hockey, children's health and education, military veterans and the preservation of the franchise's endangered mascot and namesake, the Florida panther.
"This is definitely our largest event," Simone said. "We have other smaller fundraisers that we do, such as live in-game auctions and online auctions. We also have the 50/50 Raffle, which fans love to participate in during games. And, of course, we also have the generosity of our owners that are always contributing to the foundation to make sure that we have the money to give out to the community."
As it was at the inaugural Cats & Cocktails event, the live auction, which Simone says raised over $60,000 alone this year, was easily the biggest hit of the night, as sponsors and premium seat owners were given the opportunity to bid on one-of-a-kid experiences with some of their favorite players.
"It's so fun to come up with the experiences," Simone said.
Of all of the unique auction items up for bid, the one closest to the foundation's heart, Simone says, continues to be "Panther Pro For a Day," which gives one lucky kid a chance to sign a one-day contract and live the life of an NHL player for an entire day, an experience that includes everything from sharing a table with players during team meals to joining them on the ice for practice.
"All the guys love that day," Simone said. "They were so enthusiastic when we had our 'Panther Pro for the Day' last year, so we decided to bring that one back at the request of the players this year."
Among the other items up for bid were original Panthers-themed paintings by artist Joseph Gormley, a chance to take in a Miami Heat game with Panthers forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, and a "Stogies and Spaghetti" package, which included a dinner at Perricone's Marketplace & Café and a trip to Prime Cigar with Panthers defensemen Jason Demers and Alex Petrovic in Miami.
"We're going to have some fun up there and try to raise some money," said Demers, who has scored a team-leading nine goals among defenseman in his first season with the Panthers. "Hopefully [Petrovic and I] raise up the price a bit… It's nice to see all the guys get dressed up, get outside the rink and put on their casual cocktail suits."
In an evening full of smiles and surprises, there was one item that undoubtedly stood out among the rest, as Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad offered up to auction his warm-up jersey from Opening Night that featured the name and number of deceased Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez. The jersey was signed by the entire team, with all of the profits going to Fernandez's personal charity, the JDF16 Foundation.
In the end, that's the kind of unselfish giving that Cats & Cocktails is all about.
"It's great to come out and help any way we can," Demers said. "It's always a fun event; I think all of the guys mark it down on their calendar. You meet a lot of nice people and a lot of good sponsors. You get to kind of mingle and have a good team-night surrounded by everyone that wants us to succeed."