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Panthers Pledge to Continue Huizenga's Legacy of Giving

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

H. Wayne Huizenga Night Feature

H. Wayne Huizenga Night Feature

Hear from Panthers past and present as they honor the legacy of H. Wayne Huizenga, founder of the Florida Panthers franchise

  • 03:06 •

SUNRISE, Fla. - In celebrating the contributions of their founder and original owner H. Wayne Huizenga on Friday night, the Florida Panthers managed to bridge the gap between the franchise's past and present, reflecting on the first 25 years of the organization while also looking ahead to the future.

With family, friends and former Panthers in attendance, a banner bearing Huizenga's name and the No. 37 - chosen because it's his lucky number and birth year -- was unveiled in the rafters of BB&T Center in a special pre-game ceremony before Florida's 4-3 overtime victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

Huizenga, unable to participate in the ceremony due to health concerns, watched from a suite as Aaron Ekblad scored the game-winning goal just 40 seconds into the extra frame, triggering a flurry of rats flying towards the ice and inducing raucous cheers from the 17,468 fans that filled building.

From the rocking arena to rats raining down from the stands, it was a night that perfectly embodied Huizenga's lasting legacy as the man responsible for bringing the coldest sport on earth closer than it had ever been to the equator.

"To be able to be here to celebrate a quarter of a century of hockey in South Florida, it seems incredible that it's been that long," said Huizenga's son, H. Wayne Huizenga Jr. "It seems like just yesterday that I had my 2-year-old daughter down at the Miami Arena. We used to pass her down the row because it was all family and friends. But then she'd come back to the row behind us and bang on the glass again.

"It's amazing. The team has continued to succeed, and to see the ethos recognizing that the team is and has always been South Florida's team is incredible. To see their dedication and devotion to continuing to serve the community and serve the fans is really, really awesome."

Huizenga first brought hockey to South Florida in 1992. Less than a year later, the team was touted as the most-successful first-year franchise in any of the four major sports, finishing with 33 wins and narrowly missing out on a playoff spot in 1993-94. In 1995-96, just their third year of existence, the Panthers shocked the hockey world when they advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals - a feat that still stands out as the team's deepest postseason run to date.

"I call it the golden era of the franchise," Panthers President & CEO Matthew Caldwell said. "The franchise got off to a great start under their leadership. I know there have been some tough years down through the years, but the Violas purchasing the team is really a rebirth of the Florida Panthers franchise."

After eight years of ownership, Huizenga sold the Panthers following the 2000-01 season, with the franchise changing hands two more times before Vincent Viola and Doug Cifu purchased the club in 2013. Under Viola, Florida won the Atlantic Division in 2015-16, setting franchise records for wins (47) and points (103), while qualifying for the postseason for just the fifth time in 23 years.

But for the Viola family, living up to Huizenga's legacy is about more than wins and losses.

"What really drew us to this franchise was the culture that was created by the Huizenga family to give and to be stewards of something, to be part of the community," Viola's son, John Viola said.

Since their arrival, the Viola family has worked closely with the Florida Panthers Foundation, which has flourished under their stewardship through initiatives like the Community Champions Grant Program, which will award $5 million to local charities over the next five seasons.

"You look at this league and you look at the teams that everybody sort of defaults to for stability, and they've have a leg up on us in terms of time, but that doesn't mean that we don't have the same opportunity to create culture," John Viola said. "It starts here in the franchise. Wins and losses, they're the most important thing in the world. We're all striving for the same thing.

"But, I think people need to realize sometimes is wins and losses are affected by the people that you entrust with this brand, with this project, with this responsibility, and it starts here on the ground. The better we do building a team that really respects the community, the more the community feels a part of what we do."

When looking for the blueprint for community success, look no further than Huizenga.

Huizenga and his late wife, Marti, donated countless hours and dollars to the local community, most notably with the Boys & Girls Club. Marti served as the chairperson of their board in the mid-90s and over a 30-year relationship with the organization helped raise $20 million.

When Marti joined the Boys & Girls Club family, the organization consisted of only three clubs and served only boys. Through Marti's tenure, the Boys & Girls Club grew to include both boys and girls and currently serves over 12,500 youth spread out over 12 clubs.

In 1992, the Hollywood Club was renamed the Marti Huizenga Boys & Girls Club in honor of her contributions and commitment to giving. Today, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County is the fifth largest Boys & Girls Club organization in the country.

"We're just blessed to have two great families, in terms of the Huizenga family and now the Viola family, come into the community and embrace the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County," said Brian Quail, the President & CEO of Boys & Girls Club of Broward County. "We're only as good as the families and people that support us, day in and day out."

The Panthers recognized the Marti Huizenga Boys & Girls Club as Friday night's Community Champion, presenting the organization with a $25,000 check during the first intermission - the second year in a row that the Club has been honored.

But, like Huizenga, recent donations have included more than dollars.

The "Summer Cats" ball hockey program, which is in the midst of its third year, has very quickly become a staple in all 12 local Clubs, with all necessary supplies, such as hockey sticks, pucks, goals and protective gear, being provided by the Panthers. In August, Florida's entire business staff took the day off work to paint cubbies, build benches and landscape at a local Club as part of the organization's "Day of Service."

Looking ahead, Quail believes the Panthers' impact on the community will only grow larger.

"With the Panther Foundation and the Viola family, we just have this sense that we're going to take it to the next level," he said.

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