“Came to see friends/Walk old streets again/Grab a bit and beer by the sea/Don’t it seem funny/word gets around/I heard I was in town.” Jimmy Buffett.
They slowly made their way Thursday afternoon to South Florida.
From Kamloops to Peterborough, from Newfoundland to Detroit, members of the 1996 Panthers, the team that went to the Stanley Cup finals under a shower of toy rats, arrived in town to take part in this weekend’s ‘Weekend of the Rat’ reunion at BankAtlantic Center.
“It’s going to be a great time,” said Brian Skrudland, the Panthers’ original captain. “A lot of these guys haven’t seen each other since those years.”
And then, with a smile creasing his face, Skrudland added, “And it’s going to be great for the fans to see all the shapes, sizes and new hair styles of the players.”
Players arrived Thursday at the Seminole Hard Rock for a reception. The ’96 team will play against other Panther alumni at 3 p.m., Saturday at the BankAtlantic Center.
The ’96 Panthers, in just their third season in the NHL, shocked the sports world by making it to the finals after playoff-round victories against the Bruins, Flyers and Penguins despite being huge underdogs in every round.
Each goal was celebrated by fans showering the team with toy rats in response to Scott Mellanby killing a rat in the locker room early in the season.
“I don’t think anyone took us seriously until they played us once,” said goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. “It was really a special season and we had a special relationship with the fans.”
Dave Lowry, who scored 10 goals during the ’96 playoffs, recalled walking from the old Miami Arena to the parking lot across the street and having a line of fans waiting for autographs.
“We’d stop for 45 minutes and sign autographs,” Lowry said. “But we enjoyed reaching out to the fans. We believed it was part of our job. And the fans were great.”
Goalie Mark Fitzpatrick, who won 15 games during the 1995-96 season and was 9-1-1 in his first 11 starts, arrived from his summer home in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Fitzpatrick, who winters in Port St. Lucie and spends his time raising his two daughters, says going to the Stanley Cup finals was an “experience of a lifetime.”
“I think as we were beating Boston and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, everyone except us thought we’d get beat,” Fitzpatrick said. “But we believed we could knock any team out.”
Fitzpatrick said the item he treasures most from the 1995-96 season is a team picture. “It’s everyone with the (Prince of Wales) trophy for winning the Eastern Conference,” he said. “That’s something you can look at each and every day.”
Lance Pitlick, a Panther defenseman from 1999-02 who will be one of the alumni playing against the ’96 team, said he was excited about being part of the reunion game.
“I think it’s an awesome gesture toward these players for the dedication they put into the game and it’s going to be great for the fans,” Pitlick said.