FORT LAUDERDALE - There's no question the Panthers have built a strong foundation on the ice.
But less than 24 hours after a thrilling 4-1 win over the Lightning in Game 5 of their first-round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Panthers broke ground on the literal foundation of an exciting new project that will give the organization a large footprint in the heart of Fort Lauderdale for many years to come.
With hockey-themed shovels in hand, the Panthers ceremoniously celebrated the launch of their $65 million revitalization of the famous Fort Lauderdale War Memorial Auditorium during a balmy Tuesday afternoon in Holiday Park, a bold new construction project highlighted by a state-of-the-art ice facility.
Logistically, the new facility is located roughly 30 minutes east of BB&T Center in Sunrise.
"We love Broward County from the Everglades to the beaches," Panthers President and CEO Matt Caldwell said. "We have a great presence in Sunrise, Coral Springs and Parkland. We saw this as a great opportunity to bring hockey east. There are no ice rinks in this area. We have three sheets of ice in Coral Springs and the big sheet in Sunrise, so we view this as an extension of the growth of our sport."
When the city first approached the Panthers about updating the 71-year-old structure, Caldwell said it was something they couldn't help but jump at. After all, military roots run deep within the organization. Ever since Vincent Viola, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, assumed ownership of the team in 2015, veterans' issues have been a key pillar of the organization's ongoing charitable efforts.
"The mayor of Fort Lauderdale thought of us because he knows that we love vets," said Caldwell, who is also a product of West Point. "This is a facility that's been a little rundown through the years and hadn't had a lot of investment. It started as a veteran tribute and somehow turned into much more than that."
So much more, in fact.
As talks heated up between the Panthers and the city, the idea of adding an on-site ice rink soon came up. From there, it became two ice rinks. Drawing inspiration from top practice facilities around the U.S. and Canada, Caldwell said the team was then inspired to add in an entertainment venue and restaurant.
After roughly two years of research and preparation, the final blueprint for the new and improved War Memorial featured a 144,000 square foot venue highlighted by South Florida's first-of-its-kind ballroom performance theater, a bar and dining establishment, two regulation indoor ice rinks and much more.
Upon seeing the final renderings, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis was blown away.
"It's a multi-purpose center," Trantalis said. "The focus will be of course on ice skating and exhibition play, but also there's a separate rink for families and kids to be able to come here and practice and learn. It'll also be a concert venue. It'll also be a place for a lot of things in this community. The good thing is that the city has been able to partner with the Panthers for this to be able to take place."
For the two ice rinks, the Panthers teamed up with one of their longest-running partners.
Slated to open in the summer of 2022, the Baptist Health IcePlex will feature two sheets of ice. Of the two sheets, one will be strictly dedicated to the public for the use of everything from public skating to youth and adult hockey programs. The other sheet will serve as the official practice rink of the Panthers and include stadium seating for approximately 1,000 fans to watch the team's practices and training.
To make more hockey accessible for everyone, all practice sessions will be free and open to the public.
"It's bringing two winning teams together to celebrate in a great place," said Javier Hernandez-Lichtl, CEO of Baptist Health's Doctors Hospital and Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute. "We're making history together. This Baptist Health IcePlex is going to change the community and offer so much, especially to the youth. It's an exciting day with two anchor organizations coming together."
While the War Memorial isn't slated to open its doors until the summer of 2022, the Panthers decided to get a head start on introducing hockey to local children during this afternoon's festivities. With the Baptist Health IcePlex set to be the future home of the Florida Panthers Foundation's brand-new Youth Hockey Scholarship Program, the first 10 recipients were on hand to receive both jerseys and a surprise.
In partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County, the program, which is aimed at fostering inclusivity and representation in the sport, will cover the full cost of skating, training, equipment and more for each of the recipients throughout however long they want to continue their journey in hockey.
On stage to present the scholarships (prior to a special visit from Stanley C. Panther) was Panthers assistant general manager Brett Peterson and Peter Worrell, a former Panthers forward and current Hockey Director at the Panthers IceDen, which currently serves as the team's official training facility.
"When I came to Fort Lauderdale, one of the things that I wanted to do was impact the game of hockey both on and off the ice," Peterson said. "Today we take a huge step in that direction with this great facility. The War Memorial will be a place that will create memories and opportunities for so many."
A huge step, but certainly not the last the Panthers will make.
When asked about the importance of using this new facility to continue investing in the growth of the game, Caldwell said he was reminded of something that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who was one of several special guests at the groundbreaking ceremony, told Viola after he purchased the Panthers.
"He told Vinnie the first day that he bought the team, 'You get one kid playing hockey and you've created three fans, whether it's adding parents, brothers or sisters,'" Caldwell said. "We like that ratio. The more we can invest in the youth hockey and improve the community, we're also creating new fans."
To stay up to date on the facility, follow @FTLWarMemorial on Twitter.