Click here to view a full photo gallery from the 95-96 Reunion
SUNRISE, Fla. – The year was 1996.
Less than a month after the Tom Cruise action thriller “Mission: Impossible” was released in theaters, another ragtag group of misfits and castoffs starred in what could be described as hockey’s “Mission: Improbable”.
In only their third season of existence, the Florida Panthers seemingly came out of nowhere to reach the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, the fastest post-1967 expansion team to make a run that deep in the postseason.
With a roster compromised primarily of gritty, hard-nosed veterans, Florida’s newfound franchise quickly captured the imagination of their fledgling fan base by defeating the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins before eventually being swept by the heavily favored Colorado Avalanche.
“It was so special,” said Brian Skrudland, who was the Panthers' first captain, from 1993-97. “It was an opportunity for us to give a little something back to the community, in a sense that those fans were really behind us 110 percent. There were a lot of new hockey fans and a lot of snowbirds from areas like Boston and Pittsburgh that, I think, changed their allegiances once they saw us play.
“It was a great time for hockey and a great time in our lives.”
On Saturday, Skrudland and numerous other members of the 1995-96 Panthers, including goaltender John “Beezer” Vanbiesbrouck and forward Scott Mellanby, were in attendance at BB&T Center as the organization celebrated the 20th anniversary of the miracle run that helped plant the seeds of hockey in South Florida.
“It’s nice to come back here and see the fans,” said defenseman Ed Jovanovski, who the Panthers selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1994 NHL Draft. “I think this team had a special bond with the fans, and it’s showing here today. I think the cool thing about this team was that the relationship between players and fans was really good.”
The laughs were plentiful throughout the event, as former teammates rehashed stories from the earliest days of the franchise, most of which elicited a few chuckles from the large contingent of longtime season seat owners in attendance.
From the tale of “The Rat Trick” to videos of “The Goal”, fans were given the opportunity to relive some of the biggest moments in Panthers history, while also hearing new insights from the players that lived it.
“That year was so much fun,” said Andy Rubenstein, a season seat owner since the Panthers inaugural season in 1993. “At the time, it was just a bunch of guys that nobody had really heard of, and they basically lit hockey on fire. There was always a core of hockey fans down here, but they weren’t from here. But it seemed like everybody that was around here at that time, they got on that Panther bandwagon because their team wasn’t in it. Then, for years afterwards, they came back as Panther fans.”
In the 20 years since the rats first rained down upon the ice, the 1995-96 Panthers have remained beloved and celebrated sports figures in South Florida. It was a team that not only spawned a new a generation of new hockey fans, but also was able to convert even the most fervent fans of other teams through their blue-collar play and infectious fun-loving attitude.
“It was a very exciting time in Panthers history,” said Karin Lash, a Lake Worth resident originally from Detroit. “We are Day 1 [season ticket holders]. I gave up my Red Wings and embraced the Panthers.
“I think it’s very fitting that it’s the 20th anniversary this year and the guys from ’96 are here to help cheer on the next generation of players.”