PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. - The Florida Panthers teamed up with the University of Miami to provide a very special group of kids a night they'll never forget during Friday's Autism Awareness/Special Needs Night at Pines Ice Arena.
The NOVA Cool Cats, a team of developmentally disabled skaters from Virginia, were invited by Miami's hockey to attend their weekend matchup against Florida State. The Hurricanes wore special Autism Awareness jerseys for the event and stood side-by-side with the Cool Cats during the anthem.
Panthers d-man Alex Petrovic, meanwhile, dropped the ceremonial first puck.
"I think it's really important to help a lot of those kids out," Petrovic said. "I wake up every morning really appreciative of where I am and what I've accomplished. But being out in the community and meeting special needs kids or sick kids in the hospital, if you can help make their day a little bit better or make them smile for an extra second, it goes a long way."
In addition to his puck-dropping duties, Petrovic also addressed the Hurricanes, Seminoles and Cool Cats locker rooms before the start of the game, answering questions, signing autographs and posing for pictures with numerous players.
"If I can make someone smile or have a great night here tonight, that's my main goal," Petrovic said. "I want to be a role model for them to work hard, to show them that if they work hard at what they love to do, whether it's hockey or anything in life, they can get to anywhere they want to be."
Established in 2004, the Cool Cats program uses the sport of hockey as a way to help learning disabled boys and girls develop important individual characteristics such as dependability, self-reliance, concentration and willingness to share.
"We care about these kids off the ice more than we do on the ice," said Randy Brawley, the head coach and executive director of the Cool Cats. "We want them to team-build on the ice so they can do it off the ice."
Brawley's son, Scott, is autistic and captains the Cool Cats.
"The highlight is just seeing the kids out there and all the fans cheering," Brawley said of the weekend.
After meeting with the Cool Cats, Petrovic invited Brawley and his team to attend Saturday's game and morning skate at the BB&T Center, where players met with several other Panthers skaters such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Micheal Haley and Jamie McGinn before watching Florida battle the Detroit Red Wings.
"It should be a fun night," Petrovic said.