It’s one thing to walk into an NHL locker room before morning skate. It’s another thing entirely to see your name on a jersey hanging in one of the stalls.
Jonathan Brown – a local 13-year-old – wasn’t expecting that as he walked into the Cats locker room this morning alongside center Nick Bjugstad. Above his unmistakable red and blue Panthers jersey was a steel nameplate with his name on it.
This was his stall, his special spot among the NHL’s elite.
Below the jersey, of course, was a duffel bag chock full of hats, shirts and other goodies. His stall also came complete with two brand new wooden hockey sticks, something that any player needs.
There was just one problem.
"I saw he had two wood sticks there,” said Panthers forward Shawn Thornton. “Thought that wasn’t good enough, so I thought I’d give him one of mine."
Thornton grabbed some tape, held up a stick and put a strip right where the stick met Brown’s nose. Then he ducked away to the equipment room, and came back minutes later with a stick perfectly sized stick – pristinely taped up in Panthers red – for Brown to use.
Brown certainly wasn’t just along for the ride. As the South Florida Ford Panther for a Day, he was a full-fledged member of the team. An auction item at the Panthers Foundation Cats & Cocktails event, South Florida Ford provided Brown with the chance to eat breakfast with Bjugstad, practice passing and stick handling in the training room with Alex Petrovic, sign a contract with general manager Dale Tallon and, of course, take in the morning skate action from the Panthers bench.
“His mom said she’d never seen him talk so much,” said Panthers coach Gerard Gallant. “It was an awesome day for us and for him and the guys really appreciate seeing him too, it was great."
Despite an important divisional game looming tonight, the players went out of their way to make Brown feel welcome – even giving him the nickname “Brownie” – with a barrage of high-fives and fist bumps.
“It’s a gameday, you want to get ready and prepared – this is a big game tonight – but I thought all the guys did a great job of making him feel welcome,” said Thornton. “That shows a lot of character on our team."
That character and the instant camaraderie certainly stood out to Brown’s parents.
“Seeing them giving him high fives, making him feel like he’s part of the team,” said his mother, Maria Brown, “I have no words for it."
All in all, Jonathan took home a bag full of gear, four sticks (including one of Aaron Ekblad’s broken ones) and innumerable memories.
“It means a lot to Jonathan,” said Gallant, "but to our players, to see this kid come in here and to see the excitement — the true excitement — of this kid, it makes the players feel really good."
When it came time for Jonathan to go home after a whirlwind morning, he made sure to say goodbye to his new teammates – for now. He and his family will be back at the arena for tonight’s matchup against Detroit.
And that’s when it became clear – as the players said their goodbyes – his new nickname had stuck.