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Panthers Learning Invaluable Lessons at West Point

by Jameson Olive @JamesonCoop /

The Florida Panthers aren't the first franchise to spend part of their training camp at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., but of all the teams in the entire NHL, they alone might be able to claim the area as their own home away from home.

For it is within the hallowed halls of the nation's oldest occupied military post that the heart and soul of the new and improved Panthers can be found. As the preeminent leadership institution in the world, the academy has famously groomed some of the nation's greatest minds since its inception in 1802, from former President Dwight D. Eisenhower to astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

It is also where Panthers Chairman and Owner Vincent Viola, who graduated from the academy in 1977, learned the true value of leadership as well as the important tools for life that his multi-billion dollar business empire has been built upon.

On Saturday, the Panthers will host the New Jersey Devils in their preseason finale at Tate Rink, the home of Army hockey, at 7:30 p.m. ET - the team's final tune-up before beginning a lengthy season filled with Stanley Cup aspirations. The game will be aired live on FOX Sports Florida, with broadcasters Steve "Goldie" Goldstein and Denis Potvin calling all of the action from inside the intimate 2,648-seat hockey rink.

"We are honored to have West Point host the Panthers for this preseason game," said Viola, who purchased the Panthers in 2013. "The values and character taught at West Point are ingrained in our team culture and the philosophy of our organization."

This highly anticipated preseason matchup marks the Panthers fourth visit to West Point, having previously visited the U.S. Military Academy for team-building trips in 1995, 2007, and most recently in 2014.

"It's exciting," said Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle, a native of Boston, Mass. "When you see the schedule come out, you see such a prestige place and know you have to take it all in. You're excited for the team building, seeing everything to offer. It's pretty cool.

"It will be amazing. It's going to be one of those things, especially as an American, to be able to put on a show for the men and women who do so much for us is a special thing.''

While the Panthers hope to end their preseason on a high note, the purpose of this trip is to reinforce the selfless, team-first culture that the academy has been known to instill into each and every one of its graduates.

"West Point teaches you perseverance and the ability to fight through a lot of different problems,'' said Panthers Chief of Staff Sean McCaffrey, who graduated from the academy in 2004. "You have to be really reactive and how to lead and to interact with people. The key to success is to get the most out of people, to work together."

In addition to McCaffrey, several other West Point graduates can also be found serving in key off-ice roles within the Panthers organization, including President and CEO Matt Caldwell and Assistant General Manager Eric Joyce, who also serves as the General Manager of Florida's American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds.

"No one wants to make the comparisons to war, but the military preaches the core values and principles to the West Point cadets that hockey players cherish, what Coach Gallant and [General Manager] Tom Rowe and [President of Hockey Operation] Dale Tallon preaches,'' said Caldwell, who, like Joyce, graduated from the academy in 2002. "To be humble, down-to-earth; that hard-working mentality which is very team-oriented.

"Military guys put their head down and say 'No, nothing is going to stop us or get in the way,' and that definitely helps in life and in business and in sports.''

As the Panthers prepare for their fourth campaign under Viola's ownership, it is the adaptation of that hard-working mentality that has quickly turned what was once one of the league's most forlorn franchises into a team that is expected to contend for a Stanley Cup in the upcoming season.

"I'm looking forward for the guys that haven't been there to see it and see what it's all about it," said Panthers forward Shawn Thornton. "It's our last exhibition game, so guys will be getting ready for the regular season.

"They're grooming those kids [in the stands] to be leaders on the battlefield. To see 400 students with the same mission and same group thought, it's pretty impressive. It'll be good for everyone to see."

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