20 years after the introduction of the franchise, a No. 34 is once again gracing the Panthers crease.
Signed to a one-year contract last Thursday after going through camp on a PTO, veteran net minder Tim Thomas selected No. 34 as the number he'll don and it's all in honor of the Panthers first netminder, John Vanbiesbrouck.
"Growing up, John Vanbiesbrouck was one of the guys that I looked up to," said Thomas on the goaltender who was selected with the Panthers first pick in the 1993 Expansion Draft. "Especially being a fellow American and he's from Michigan."
The two Panthers No. 34's have crossed paths before, most recently going on a celebrity pheasant hunt in South Dakota as part of a USA Hockey fundraiser during the NHL Lockout last year.
The connections started much, much earlier however. Vanbiesbrouck was born in Detroit, MI while Thomas was born about an hour northwest in Flint, MI. It was at a young age, that the current Panthers netminder first came across Vanbiesbrouck who was in his early NHL career with the New York Rangers.
"When I was 10 years old, I lived down the street from his parents in Detroit," said Thomas. "I saw him out running and training a couple of times in the summer. So obviously I followed his career."
Thomas said that the first time he met Vanbiesbrouck was actually when the first No. 34 was with the Panthers and Thomas was in college. ‘Beezer’ was with Florida from 1993-98 while Thomas attended the University of Vermont from 1993-97.
For the now 39-year old, Thomas sees some similarities in their style of play. Both players have had their detractors yet chiseled out successful NHL careers.
"He was a smaller guy. I'm not necessarily as small as him but I've had to battle through people's opinions of my style and he had his own unique style that I watched," said Thomas. "I see similarities in that quarter."
And while he can't recall any specific games that stand out of the Beezer, he does remember the netminder and right before puck drop.
"I even remember how he was during national anthems," said Thomas. "He had the feet moving all the time. I'm not like that. I stand still but still it's the little things like that."
He, like most other hockey enthusiasts, does remember that Panthers magical year of 1995-96.
"Definitely watched him, specially that year that they made the run and I watched it a lot," said Thomas.
That year, that's what Thomas is looking to help the Panthers recapture. It's something that he wouldn't want any more, especially during the special 20th Anniversary season.
"When he was here, the Panthers had the best season that they've had in the history of the organization," said Thomas. "I'm going to try and pick up where he left off."
And that started off on the right track as Thomas stopped 25 of 27 shots to lead the Panthers to an opening night win over the Stars.