SUNRISE, Fla. - The Florida Panthers adopted another unique military tradition prior to Thursday's tilt against the San Jose Sharks, handing out "Commander Coins" to each player during a private pre-game ceremony at the BB&T Center.
"I could tell that the players were really thrilled," Team President and CEO Matthew Caldwell said. "I think they were really touched to be a part of a military tradition that is very important to their owner. We were really excited to share that."
As a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and former officer in the 101st Airborne Division, Panthers Chairman, Owner & Governor Vincent Viola believes that many of the core values of military service - loyalty, duty, honor, etc. - should be interwoven into the fabric of his franchise.
"Vinnie looks at the team as his platoon, his soldiers," said Caldwell, who served as Military Officer in the United States Army from 2002-07. "We made these coins for some special people and, of course, we wanted to distribute them first to our players."
In honor of Military Appreciation Night, the Panthers donned camouflage jerseys during warmups - which are currently being auctioned off by the Florida Panthers Foundation -- and, after repelling down from the arena's rafters in a dazzling display, four Navy SEALs assisted in a ceremonial puck drop at center ice.
The distribution of the coins, however, was far more personal.
In the moments before they were scheduled to take the ice, Caldwell made his way around the Panthers' locker room, shaking each player's hand and leaving a personalized coin resting in their palm as he moved from stall to stall.
"I think the guys are pretty honored," Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie said. "It's pretty special. I almost feel guilty, in a way, getting something that carries such an honor to guys overseas. We certainly feel second best in that regard."
The coins, which are inspired by the longstanding military tradition of challenge coins, were numbered from 1-101 - in honor of the 101st Airborne Division - and each player received the coin matching their respective jersey number.
Historically, a challenge coin is most often a small coin or medallion that bears an organization's insignia or emblem and is carried by the organization's members. In the military, they are given to prove membership to specific groups or branches and to enhance morale.
"I think it was a classy little touch that reinforces how hands on ownership is," MacKenzie said. "I think they felt that this was something that would mean a lot to the guys and it does, so it was a pretty cool thing."
For the Panthers, Caldwell sees the coins as a "token of appreciation" and means to reward players for their continued service to both the team and the community.
"It mean's you're a part of the family," Caldwell said.
"It's a badge of honor. You can't buy this anywhere. You've got to earn this."