By Glenn Odebralski for floridapanthers.com
Almost 20 years ago (17 to be exact), John Vanbiesbrouck became the face of a franchise.
Left uncovered by the New York Rangers, Vanbiesbrouck was selected first overall in the 1993 NHL Expansion draft by the Florida Panthers.
For five seasons Beezer, as he was so known as during his playing days, called the Panthers his team. He was the face that everyone associated the Panthers with and he helped get hockey started in South Florida.
Those efforts, among many others, are the reasons why Vanbiesbrouck was inducted into the Broward County Sports Hall Of Fame Tuesday night along with Danny McManus (football), Patti Rizzo (golf), Daniel, Troy and Wayne Weekley (rodeo) and Autry Denson (football). He becomes just the third hockey personality to join the club, joining original owner H. Wayne Heizinga and the first president and current alternate governor Bill Torrey.
"It's a great honor," said Vanbiesbrouck. "I'm in a select group."
"Being a guy that doesn't live down there full time, it's nice to be remembered for my contribution. It's special that way because when you play in a community, you think that you want to give more than just playing to the community and when you get inducted, you're selected in this type of group."
Vanbiesbrouck joins greats such as Michael Irvin and Dan Marino (football), Whitey Ford and Earl Weaver (baseball), Chris Evert (tennis), Jerry Bailey (horse racing) and Dara Torres (swimming) in the Broward County Sports Hall Of Fame.
Being that he was the Panthers first ever pick, their franchise cornerstone, it makes sense that Vanbiesbrouck would be the first Panthers player inducted into the Hall Of Fame, but for the former goaltender, someone else could have easily been in his position.
"There's a parallel there but there's so many other deserving people and great players that are worthy of that selection from that team," said Vanbiesbrouck. "Even though I was the first guy selected and what not, we had a great unit so it's special to be selected as a person from that group that the people in Broward County see as special and identifiable."
Vanbiesbrouck went 106-108-43 in his five years in South Florida and finished with a .912 save percentage and a 2.58 goals against average. He helped lead the Panthers to the Stanley Cup final against Colorado in just the third year of the franchise.
Reflecting on the early days and going into that new situation, there's a lot of things that Vanbiesbrouck remembers about his time in Florida.
"The first is crossing through the first threshold, is it going to work. Some people doubted whether hockey was going to work in South Florida," said Vanbiesbrouck. "The second thing is how are we going to be as a team. When you play on an expansion team, you just don't want to get beat up every night or a team that just gets thrashed and then what kind of fight you can put up in order to not let that happen.
"I think that we became the proverbial stick in the mud type team. We were hard to play against and we developed an identity that answered all those questions. In pro sports, you're always answering questions so I thought that we did well. The thing that sticks out the most is probably the fact of hockey and how we united, became a group."
Playing for a new team that played a sport that most people didn't understand, Vanbiesbrouck thought that the fans took the team accepted them, thanks in large part to a smart strategy.
"I thought that the organization did a fantastic job with creating an identity. I think that the people that were in charge, had some good vision from the ownership group in Wayne Heuzinga to what they would like to see in the way of players and that team," said Vanbiesbrouck. "I think that most of the fans down there in Florida adopted us kind of like a stray dog (laughing) at a kennel. They wanted to take us in. They felt for us and that's why I think we identified with them so quickly."
The netminder who is also a part of the US Hockey Hall Of Fame will be on hand for Wednesday nights game against Toronto while being honored by the Panthers prior to the game.
"I have a lot of respect for the team," said Vanbiesbrouck. "It's nice to be centered out and respected as well. I only wish the team well. I watch a lot of the games because I feel connected in some way shape or form.
"I don't watch a lot of other teams that I played for's games, I only watch a lot of Florida's games.
"Recently I took my son Nick for his 18th birthday to Toronto to meet up with and watch the team play against Toronto so there's some connectivity to my family. You just feel part of it so this honor is something special and any time you can get recognized by a former team in this type of way, you just feel that sense of connectivity."
Vanbiesbrouck feels that that connectivity between the past and present is returning and that's a very good thing for the Panthers future. The Panthers hired former players Brian Skrudland and Gord Murphy to be a part of their staff. They honored Bill Torrey with a banner raising ceremony in October. They built a Den Of Honor to honor all of those who helped grow the game in South Florida.
"Most people look at the origin in their DNA and want to pick out the times and the nuggets that helped them grow," said Vanbiesbrouck. "I think that a team that has a relatively young root system, it's nice for them to identify with some of the players that started the program and even the ones that continued on with the program.
"Brian and Gord both being a part of the team and I think that both of their character and the way that they played and the respect that they had from their teammates, helped build that unity and I think that's a good fabric for this team moving into the future."
Vanibesbrouck currently stays busy running his own business called VBK Sports Viewer
"It's for education and try to help create responsible athletes," said Vanbiesbrouck. "It's a web based tool that allows you to share whatever content you film and you upload it to our website. You can edit it and share it within the site itself. It's a very useful resource to players at all levels."