SUNRISE, Fla. - The stars were on the ice, but heroes were in the stands.
The Florida Panthers hosted more than 1,000 "hurricane heroes" and their families during the team's 2017-18 home opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning at the BB&T Center on Saturday night.
In addition to larger groups like the Broward Sheriff's Department, Florida Power & Light, and the American Red Cross, other individual heroes from Hurricane Irma and Maria were also honored throughout the game with special video tributes on the jumbotron. One such hero, Sister Margaret Ann, a chainsaw-wielding nun who famously took unblocking a road into her own hands, drew some of the loudest cheers of the night from the Panthers fans in attendance.
"In times of need, the Florida Panthers are always prepared to support the surrounding community. It's an important part of who we are as an organization," said Florida Panthers Owner Vincent J. Viola. "We are proud to stand with Florida and those affected by the recent disasters in our community."
In a special pre-game ceremony, the Panthers honored their September pledge to donate $1 million towards hurricane relief, awarding a $250,000 check to four separate organizations: Feeding South Florida, The Salvation Army, Foundation of Florida Keys and UNICEF.
Established in 1865, The Salvation Army has served survivors of every major national disaster since 1900. Assisting more than 25 million Americans each year, it provides food for the hungry, relief for disaster victims, assistance for the disabled, outreach to the elderly and ill, clothing and shelter for the homeless, and opportunities for underprivileged children.
"It's amazing to see, not only the generosity, but the spirit and camaraderie of the Panthers," said Kevin Smith, The Salvation Army's Emergency Disaster Services Director for Florida. "We've already given out a direct service of $4.2 million in just the Hurricane Irma response across Florida. Every dollar that comes to disaster services goes directly to disaster services. This gift by the Panthers will extend what we're able to do for families across South Florida."
Working in more than 190 countries, UNICEF has helped save more children's lives than any other humanitarian organization, by providing basic necessities such as health care and immunizations, clean water and sanitation, nutrition, education, emergency relief and more.
"This is an incredible moment," said Shanell Mosley, UNICEF's Assistant Director of Sports Partnerships. "This gives us an opportunity to put kids first. In all the disasters and emergencies that are taking place right now, it's important that we all remember that kids are kids. Whether they're experiencing a disaster or lost their home, they're always going to be kids. The fact that we're working with the Florida Panthers to put them first really means a lot."
The leading domestic hunger-relief organization serving Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe Counties, Feeding South Florida provides immediate access to nutritious food for those in need. Feeding South Florida rescues 46 million pounds of food annually, serving 710,370 individuals in need of food assistance.
"This night means hope," said Sari Vatske, Feeding South Florida's Vice President of Community Relations. "I think it's really cathartic. I think our families have been through a lot, not only in South Florida, but many of us also have friends and family in places like Mexico and Puerto Rico. It's just incredible to come together with everyone that's done an amazing job."
The Community Foundation of the Keys serves the needs and philanthropic aims of donors who wish to better the Keys now and in the future. For more than 20 years, CFFK has helping connect philanthropists with worthy causes, granting more than $22 million to the community since 1996.
"What [the Panthers] are doing is incredible," said Dianna Sutton, the President & CEO of the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys. "So many people and organizations across the country are concerned about the Florida Keys and helping us. The Panthers have really stepped up to the plate and have done the most of any organization."