Remembering Panthers and rats as another team in our state plays for the Stanley Cup

Clean-up workers clear the ice of rubber rats after Florida scored a goal during the first period of game three of the Stanley Cup Finals at Miami Arena in Miami, Florida. (Credit: Glenn Cratty/ALLSPORT/NHL Images)

When will I be glued to every second of the Stanley Cup Finals? When rats fly, more or less, for that is the enduring memory from the last NHL championship series that required my full attention.

Still got one of those toy rats on display at my work cubicle. In 37 years of covering sports, there never has been a stranger sight than thousands of plastic vermin raining down on the ice from Florida Panthers fans who couldn’t believe that hockey heaven had come to Miami.

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It was 1996 when the Panthers plowed their way into the Stanley Cup Finals in what was the franchise’s third year of existence. The Colorado Avalanche ruined the party by sweeping the series, but even then it took three overtimes to finish it off in Game 4 at Miami Arena.

All the while, great mounds of supplemental air-conditioning equipment wheezed away in the summer heat outside the building. It took an extra shot of winter delivered by massive air ducts to keep the ice inside in the mood for playoff action.

Panthers' Scott Mellanby in 1996 (Allen Eyestone/Palm Beach Post photo)

Panthers’ Scott Mellanby in 1996 (Allen Eyestone/Palm Beach Post photo)

The rats? Oh, that was in silly tribute to Scott Mellanby killing a rat with his hockey stick in the Panthers’ locker room and then going out to score two goals that same day. They called it a “Rat Trick.” They called it good luck, too, and in the earlier playoff rounds against Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, there was plenty of that.

Tonight the Tampa Bay Lightning open the Stanley Cup Finals at home against the Chicago Blackhawks. In some ways, it always will be a bit strange to think of hockey settling its ultimate score in Florida, where sheets of ice are as artificial as spray tans.

It was even stranger on the night of Oct. 7, 1992, when I found myself perched on a catwalk high above the ice at the old Expo Hall at Tampa’s Florida State Fairgrounds. That’s where they put the media for the first regular-season NHL game ever played in our state – Tampa Bay vs. Chicago.

Yes, it was the Blackhawks again, surlier than ever after being made to wait through an hour-long pregame ceremony featuring the Lightning’s Japanese ownership group. In my column from that night, Phil Esposito, the Lightning GM for that expansion season, explained how he got Japanese businessmen interested in hockey. “They thought I said saki,” he said.

Anyway, Tampa Bay won 7-3 and everybody was happy except for the guy sitting on the stool next to me. He fumed the entire game, shouting horrible things at the Blackhawks, at the officials, at the world. I asked the Lightning’s media representative who this guy was and why he didn’t understand how to act more professionally in what passed for a press box in that old barn.

Mike Keenan reacts behind bench during his time as Florida Panthers coach in 2003 (Richard Graulich/Palm Beach Post photo)

Mike Keenan reacts behind bench during his time as Florida Panthers coach in 2003 (Richard Graulich/Palm Beach Post photo)

I was advised to stay quiet, stay calm and do everything possible to avoid further antagonizing the man, who turned out to be Mike Keenan, who was working in the Blackhawks’ front office that year.

Hockey fans already know about Iron Mike, but to the unitiated, and that’s what I was at the time, here is a description of Keenan by the great Jeremy Roenick.

“Playing for coach Mike Keenan in Chicago was like camping on the side of an active volcano,” Roenick wrote in an article for Deadspin. “You had to accept the reality that he erupted regularly and that there was always a danger of being caught in his lava flow.”

Keenan was a beast all right, but even he couldn’t light a fire under the Panthers. While serving as Florida’s coach from 2002-04, he never finished higher than fourth place and failed to make the playoffs.