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Looking Back On The '96 Season

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
Over 11 years ago, the South Florida community was captivated by a team of so-called castoffs that nearly took home sport’s most famous trophy. We let them tell the story.

It’s hard to justify the special feeling that surrounded the 1996 Florida Panthers season with mere words. The “Year of the Rat” and the Cats miracle run to the Stanley Cup finals touched so many people in so many ways, it would be impossible to encompass in just one voice. So, in honor of the upcoming “Weekend of the Rat” reunion, we decided to let some of the members of that team, and some of the fans and staff that surrounded it, tell us about that special year in their own words.

The Rat Guy: Scott Mellanby

It was our home opener and we were playing Calgary. We were all ready to go out on to the ice, we were kind of standing there in the room. Someone just yelled out there was a big rat running down the hall and all of the sudden it just came zipping into the dressing room. A couple guys tried to kick at it, and a couple guys actually jumped up on to the benches because they were a little scared. You know running around I think the rat was scared. We had a small dressing room so it was kind of darting all over the place. At one point it turned a bee-lined right across the room towards me. I think out of partial fear and partial self defense or whatever, it came right at me and I just hammered it almost like a slapshot. It went flying into the wall that was about ten feet away from me, and you know it was dead.

As we were going out to the ice I looked at my stick. There was a few little rat hairs on there and I was showing a couple guys. We were doing introductions so we were standing out there for a while and getting a little chuckle out of it.

Anyways we won the game and I had two goals, so Beezer said to one of the media guys that I got two goals and a killed a rat, so instead of a hat trick he said I got a “rat trick.” I think it was maybe a few weeks that went by and then at first, when I would score a goal, a couple people threw a couple rats on the ice. As the season went on it kind of snowballed and it started to be more and more rats. When the team scored people started throwing them, and in the playoffs obviously everyone was pumped up with us making the playoffs in our third year, so the rat got to be more and more. I know the league would announce on the PA system “Please don’t throw rats on the ice.” Yet then you have footage of Marti Huzienga with her big bag of rats and throwing them on the ice.

I went to the All-star game that year and I remember a kid came up to me outside in Boston. I don’t think he knew my name. He said “You’re the Rat Guy right?” So I signed whatever it was I signed for him, I was just the “Rat Guy.”

The Coach: Doug McLean

It was amazing. To get the job was the thrill of a lifetime. As a first time head coach it was exciting. I started phoning the players after I got the job and the first call I made was to Brian Skrudland. I got off the phone and I was totally wound up, because he got me fired up. He was saying “Hey Doug we have a chance to win with this team.” I was thinking, “wow this could be interesting” because he was that kind of leader and things just took off from there.

We got on the ice and there was a lot of skepticism around my hiring at the time. With (assistant coaches) Lindy Ruff, Duane Sutter and Billy Smith, I knew it was an amazing group and it was a direct result of the group of players that were there, the Skrudland’s, the Lowry’s, the Mellanby’s, the Vanbeisbrouck’s. I mean, talk about a leadership and character combination.

We lost our first game in New Jersey. I remember sitting on the plane coming home thinking “Geez we didn’t play very well.” I was excited coming in there. So we get home and there is a five game home stand and we won five in a row. And it didn’t stop. We were in first place at Christmas. It was amazing how the year and the confidence of the group just kept up, it was just magical. 

You always, when you’re a coach, go through a phase of “We’ve got to make the playoffs.” It was a tight race and finally we made it. I remember driving home with my wife Jill and we were on the freeway going back to Coral Springs. At the time I was driving an ‘87 Volvo, and this was in ‘96. I said to Jill “you know I just made a $10,000 bonus for making the playoffs, is that unbelievable to make that.” Then I said to her “You know, I’d love to get a new car, one of those BMW 300’s.” She said, “Why don’t you use the money to get a new BMW.” So the next morning at 9:30 there’s a BMW sitting in my spot. I made contact quickly and got it done. I was all fired up about this BMW, I thought “This is the nicest care I’ve ever had in my life.” The next week I pull up to a stop light on Sample Road and this guy next to me asks, “Are you Coach McClean?” I said, “Yeah, yeah I am.” So he says, “I can’t believe your only driving a 300 series.”

The Captain: Brian Skrudland

I guess the whole idea really starts with the fact you had a bunch of guys who were left unprotected in the (Expansion) draft. Those guys made up the nucleus of the team. And it was an opportunity for each and every one of us, first and foremost, individually and collectively, to prove we were all capable of playing at the NHL level.

I think (GM) Bob Clarke said it right from the first meeting. “You guys are all NHL players and we’ve assembled a group that can compete from day one.” And, you know, we believed in ourselves and what this whole team stood for. Throw into the mix the play of the young guys they acquired (from the draft) in (Rob) Niedermayer and the European players like (Robert) Svehla, and you had a pretty interesting crew. Then, over time, you got (Ed) Jovanovski and (Rhett) Warrener. We believed in ourselves, knew we had this opportunity, and we knew the sky was the limit.

We all wanted to win for Roger (Neilson). And when Roger was ousted, when Doug came in with a new philosophy, we already knew what we were capable of. Then you add Ray Sheppard, you got (Scott) Mellanby turning it on. And Dave Lowry? What did he score, 10 goals in the playoffs?

I really don’t think many teams worked as hard as we did every day, every game. Every game and every guy gave 150 percent.

The Checker: Tom Fitzgerald

It’s funny, but looking back at what San Jose, Ottawa and Tampa had went through in their early years, I was like, ‘Man, expansion?’ I didn’t think we were going to win very much. But then I looked at the names of the guys the Panthers drafted, and there were a lot of older guys. It was different then what the other teams did.

I had spent my first five years with the Islanders, and I was hurt I wasn’t going to be there anymore. But Mr. Torrey, who was with the Islanders, was coming to Florida. I thought, ‘This is great.’ And while I didn’t know (GM) Bob Clarke, I knew of the aura he had with his teams. And I remember the first meeting we had with him, he made it clear we were not going to be doormats. We were going to be competitive. If you’re not, you’re out.

It opened my eyes. This is what I’m all about. Play hard. Work hard. And Roger (Neilson) was the perfect coach for an expansion team. He taught you how to play without the puck because, in reality, we may not have the puck very much. And we had an all-star goalie in Beezer. It was really something what we did. Of all the expansion teams in sports we had the best winning percentage that first year.

The ’96 team was just special. It started with Mell killing the rat. But it really started from the first day that team got together. Once we put on the Panther sweater it was all about hard work. We didn’t lean on one guy, we leaned on 20. We were accountable. And through the leadership group – the Skrudlands and Houghs – they taught us younger guys what it took to play. And because of all the teams that didn’t want us (and left us unprotected in the Expansion Draft), we wanted to prove to those teams they screwed up.

Florida is really where I established my career. I was labeled a fourth line guy. A in-your-face guy. I remember (the Islanders) telling me, ‘If you score 10 goals, it’s a bonus.’ I got more ice time here 5-on-5 and I played a bigger role. And I scored 18 goals my first year, then 13.

That was a very tight-knit group, it was a special group. And when I went to Nashville (in 1998) and their expansion team, I tried to bring that same kind of mentality to that team.

The Family of Fans: Ralph Meritt

I think just the energy level, the fans, they all felt like they were part of the team.  They had this indescribable connection with each of the players.  Their array of personalities, I mean it was a team that just really gelled.  It wasn’t full of big names, but they were names that were big to us and popular to us.  It felt like it was your team.  In social circles people talked about the Panthers, definitely more than they do today, and certainly the media was more supportive of the team. 

I think if I were to pick one important play all year it would be that picture perfect goal of Billy Lindsay’s against the Boston Bruins when we won that series.  Night after night I remember the grit and grind of Paul Laus. 

My family loved it, I mean then my kids were in junior high and high school in ’96, and now they’re away, but whenever they’re in town we always seem to go out and get extra tickets.  They still never miss a game if they’re in town.  It’s just a great family experience.  My daughter probably had a crush on Billy Lindsay, I loved Paul Laus, and I think my son really liked John Vanbiesbrouck.  Whenever we saw some rats in the store we’d grab them and bring them with us. 

It was a magical season, it was a lot of fun, and we went to all four of the Stanley Cup Finals games.  We even went to the two games in Denver.  It was a lot of fun, and we still support the team strongly.

The Fighter: Paul Laus

That season happened so quick, it was almost hard to look back on it because all of it was good. When Scott killed the rat and seeing how the community came together was something that stands out. Seeing Patrick Roy hiding in his net for fear of his life with all the rats being thrown, is something I will always remember. People like Wayne Huizenga and Don Shula were even throwing rats. As soon as we scored we ran to the bench to hide.

I don’t really remember any outstanding fights or plays that happened. That was 10 years ago, I’ve had too many punches to the head. Bill’s goal to beat the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs was amazing, He went around one of the best defensemen, Ray Bourque and I know that is something he will always remember. It will probably go down in Panther history. 

The Goal: Bill Lindsay

That goal was just pure reaction.  You know I haven’t seen it in a long time because I’m not a guy to watch myself on tape, I guess.  I haven’t seen it in probably five or six years.  I don’t know how the puck went in to tell you the truth.  I remember when I shot it that I was falling.  It wasn’t a play that I expected the puck to go in at all.  I was more surprised than anything, I think.  Doing it against Ray Bourque was definitely one of the funnier things to boot for sure. 

We just had a bunch of guys that worked extremely hard. A lot of those guys are good friends of mine.  Rhett Warrener, Stu Barnes, Tom Fitzgerald, Rob Niedermayer. 

We were treated well, we were a new organization, we were new down here to sunny South Florida, the guys were loving it, and we were just building it up.  Florida was probably, I mean I’ve played on some other teams that were pretty good, but I didn’t quite play with a group of guys that were as close as the Panthers. 

The Converted Fanatic: Cheryl LaPalme

Actually, I was not a season ticket holder at the time, but it was the 1996 season that brought me to the Panthers.  My husband was the hockey fan at the time, and he was really hooked.  I was kind of the one pushing him saying, ‘I don’t want to watch it.  Let’s watch something else.’  However, he was screaming, hollering, and having a good time.  So, I got curious, and I finally started watching

The play, the speed, the excitement, watching the crowd, just the whole atmosphere really got me going.  I remember watching Ed Jovanovski vs. Eric Lindros in the playoffs. Jovo wound up becoming my favorite player. 

At that time I was going to practices when they were over at Gold Coast, and it was a very interesting time because the players were so open to the fans.  They would specifically come out to say hello and find out how you were doing.  Even just to chit-chat about nothing they would come out to talk.  It was interesting because I grew up on football, and I’d just never experienced that where a professional athlete would come out and talk to the fans as if they were the neighbors next door. 

My friend Linda used to paint rats for the players.  She’s now retired from making rats, and last year I took up the painting of the rats.  I started giving some to the players, people in the arena, and it helps to remember because it was such a special time. 

The Equipment Guy: Scott Tinkler

Looking back, the tone for our season was set immediately. We had training camp in Greensboro, N.C. and the guys had plenty of opportunity to bond and really get to know one another.

It was a cherry picked organization that really had the best intentions of the team always in mind. The guys played for the logo on the front of their jersey, not their name on the back.

The ’96 team really had no choice other than to be close. Our practice facility at that time was up in Pompano at Gold Coast and the guys dressed in a room that was no bigger than a couple of closets. The locker room at Miami Arena wasn’t much better either, just basically 20 stalls and a closet for medical and equipment supplies. As the season progressed, the team unity continued to build and these guys would do everything together from going to lunch, playing golf and spending holidays together with their families.  

I also recall the team opening the season in New Jersey after the Devils won the Stanley Cup the year before. They raised the banner that night in front of our team and I think it was really inspirational for our guys and maybe sent subliminal messages about what it takes to succeed.

After getting blanked 4-0 on opening night against New Jersey, we returned home to play Calgary the next night in our home opener. All Panthers fans know the story of the rat. However, what many fans do not know is that night I drew a little circle around where the rat was killed and wrote “Rest in Peace.” The next day I went out and bought a stuffed rat and placed it under the tape bin in the locker room and that is sort of where the legend was born.

As for the playoff run, it was an absolutely surreal experience. From Bill Lindsay’s series clinching goal over Boston, to Ed Jovanoski’s hit on Eric Lindros in Philadelphia that shook the Spectrum and the game seven win over Pittsburgh that sent us to the Stanley Cup Finals.  Another interesting tidbit is that after game six of the Eastern Conference finals, we packed as if we were headed to Colorado. We had no plans on coming back to South Florida after the game and no one was denying us that.

The series clinching win in Pittsburgh was fantastic. It was unbelievable how all the players went out of their way to make sure that the entire staff could be part of that special moment. Skrudland invited me over to be in the team picture with the championship trophy and from that moment on I knew that I would always be part of the franchise’s history. 
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