Good morning and welcome to “Cats & Coffee,” a weekly segment in which we get you caffeinated with an exciting look at the week ahead for the Florida Panthers.
It was a sight to behold at the Panthers IceDen this past weekend as thousands of hockey fans converged on the Florida Panthers practice facility in Coral Springs to celebrate the sixth annual South Florida Hockeyfest.
From lifelong players to first-time skaters, the family-oriented event gave local hockey fans the unique opportunity to get up close and personal with an exciting sport that many had only experienced on their television or from behind a thick panel of plexiglass.
“We’ve got to help develop the fun in the sport,” Panthers Executive Chairman Peter Luukko said of the festivities. “It really doesn’t matter what level you play at because just skating in itself is such an accomplishment. I think when somebody gets on a pair of skates and sees that they can actually do something like that, then they’ll have a love of the game and it’ll just grows and grow.”
This year’s installment of Hockeyfest featured exclusive demo opportunities from top equipment manufacturers, including Bauer, CCM, Warrior and True, as well as numerous off-ice activates such as street hockey, music, inflatables and food trucks.
Without question, however, the most popular attraction of the afternoon was a special meet-and-greet table featuring Panthers skaters Derek MacKenzie and Nick Bjugstad. From 10:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., the forward duo took turns signing autographs, sharing stories, and snapping selfies with a seemingly endless crowd of eager fans.
“It’s great to see these guys excited about hockey down in South Florida,” said Bjugstad, who didn’t turn away a single fan for over two hours. “It’s a great way to get the kids into it and get the fans into it. To take a few hours out of my day to come down here for that, it was no problem. I look forward to meeting these fans. They’re the reason why we’re playing and it’s nice to be able to thank them today.”
In addition to MacKenzie and Bjugstad, Stanley C. Panther, the Panthers Energy Team, television analyst Randy Moller and radio broadcasters Billy Lindsey and Doug Plagens were also in attendance for autograph and photo opportunities throughout the day.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to sit and talk with fans and get their perspective,” MacKenzie said. “Just looking around here and seeing the excitement of the kids and the events they have set up for them is great. Anytime you can put a stick in a kid’s hand during the summertime it’s a good thing.”
Click here for a photo gallery of Hockeyfest.
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP UPDATE
The Panthers remain undefeated after the opening weekend of the 2016 IIHF World Championship in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia.
Panthers forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jussi Jokinen have combined for five assists to help lead Team Finland to an early 2-0 record in the annual tournament, which is being held from May 6-22.
Jokinen, who tallied two assists in Sunday’s 5-1 win over Team Germany, is currently tied for the tournament lead in assists (3) while playing on Finland’s top line alongside Barkov and projected 2016 first-round draft pick Patrik Laine.
Panthers defenseman Michael Matheson, meanwhile, led all skaters with a goal and two assists and was a team-high plus-four in 11:20 of ice time in Team Canada’s 7-1 victory over Team Hungary on Sunday.
Matheson, who made his NHL debut with the Panthers this past season, currently leads the tournament in plus/minus (plus-6) and ranks second among defenseman in scoring with three points (1-2—3) in two games.
The full schedule for Panthers at World Championship this week is as follows:Monday, May 9
Belarus v. Canada (Matheson) 9:15 a.m.
Finland (Barkov/Jokinen) v. USA 1:15 p.m.Tuesday, May 10
No Panthers ActiveWednesday, May 11
Finland (Barkov/Jokinen) v. Hungary 1:15 p.m.
Thursday, May 12
Canada (Matheson) v. Germany 1:15 p.m.Friday, May 13
No Panthers ActiveSaturday, May 14
France v. Finland (Barkov/Jokinen) 5:15 a.m.
Canada (Matheson) v. Slovakia 1:15 p.m.Sunday, May 15
Slovakia v. Finland (Barkov/Jokinen) 1:15 p.m.