Baseball is a first but Miami’s already had its share of All-Star games in other sports

Tuesday may be the first baseball All-Star Game to visit Miami but South Florida is not entirely new to this high grade of sporting exhibition.

[RELATED: Photos from All-Star festivities]

The NBA All-Star Game was played at the old Miami Arena in Overtown in 1990. The East won 130-113 and few other details need mentioning, except that Pat Riley was the coach of the losing Western Conference team.

MIAMI, FL – JULY 27: Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and former Marlin Jeff Conine looks on for the unveiling of the 2017 All-Star Game logo before the game between the Miami Marlins and the Philadelphia Phillies at Marlins Park on July 27, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

The NHL All-Star Game came to Sunrise in 2003 and it was another defense-optional affair, won 6-5 in overtime by the West.

Miami’s had the NFL Pro Bowl, too, on numerous occasions. Most recently it was a 41-34 win for the AFC in 2010 at what then was known as Sun Life Stadium.

There was one major missed opportunity, however. Baseball awarded the 2000 All-Star Game the Florida Marlins and the football stadium they shared with the Dolphins but soon took it back in response to a fire sale of top Marlins players in preparation for a sale of the team.

Overall, though, that’s a lot of major star power for the Magic City, a bonus to go with Super Bowls and World Series appearances and such.

In the end, any excuse to take a midseason break in Miami is a good one.

 

Players on ice and coaches on hot seats, these are the thermodynamics of life in the NHL

As the Florida Panthers introduce another new head coach, in this case former NHL defenseman Bob Boughner, I turn once more to the three things that were taught to me when first covering the sport in South Florida’s expansion season of 1993-94.

Florida Panthers Name Bob Boughner Head Coach

First, a good nickname will get you a long way in hockey. Boughner, pronounced BOOG-nur, was known as The Boogieman in his days as a player with Buffalo, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Calgary and, oh, just about every other team in the league.

Second, it’s a good thing when your goalie is standing on his head. This is hockey talk. It need bear no relation to reality.

Third, things happen in an almighty hurry in the NHL, especially when it comes to the hiring and firing of head coaches. This makes six of them in the last seven years for the Panthers, who are doing the near impossible by keeping pace with Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria.

Way back in 2000, the Panthers were playing New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs and I was doing my best to appear somewhat knowledgable in preview coverage of the series. Hockey is not my sport. Having grown up in South Florida, it is barely my planet. Still, it was so far so good until the Devils fired their head coach Robbie Ftorek with eight games remaining in the regular season and the playoffs just ahead.

New Jersey was first in the Eastern Conference at the time, and Ftorek, though dealing with a late-season slump, had a two-year winning percentage of .641 as the Devils’ coach. Crazy? Yes, but so was the production of his replacement, Larry Robinson, who was behind the bench for a first-round sweep of the Panthers and, eventually, a win over the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final.

Does it really matter who is coaching a hockey team? Seems to me it’s more about developing momentum among a group of players who trust each other enough to fight together and kill penalties together and grow beards together. That, plus a whole lot of goaltenders standing on their heads.

The whole thing is a mystery to me, as strange as being in Nashville last month for a vacation and seeing “Welcome Hockey Fans” at the entrance to every honky-tonk on Broadway.

[When fishing for NBA whales, better know the particular traits of each enormous species]

[Predicting a 4-1 start to the season for the Miami Dolphins]

[Malik Zaire is what the Gators want, but what they need is for Feleipe Franks to start]

Good luck to Boughner finding that same kind of magic in Sunrise. It happened once before in Miami, with the Panthers reaching the Stanley Cup Final in only their third year of existence and briefly turning South Beach into the North Pole.

They, too, had a fiery rookie head coach, a guy named Doug MacLean, and he really had it going for a while. Two playoff appearances in two seasons, and then an abrupt firing just 23 games into the third.

Is this any way to run a hockey franchise?

Apparently, it’s the only way.

 

Florida Panthers’ win streak is over but appreciation goes on

The Florida Panthers pushed their amazing win streak to 12 games before losing a 3-2 overtime killer at Vancouver on Monday night.

Now maybe they’ll start a new streak Wednesday night at Calgary or maybe they’ll revert to their wishy-washy ways, as one Sports Illustrated expert suggests on the basis of hockey analytics.

Florida Panthers right wing Jaromir Jagr congratulates center Aleksander Barkov on his goal during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2015, in Ottawa, Ontario. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)
OTTAWA, Ontario -Florida Panthers right wing Jaromir Jagr congratulates center Aleksander Barkov (16) on his goal during a game against the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 7, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)

I don’t know anything about hockey analytics. Truth is, I barely comprehend how a Zamboni works.

All that’s certain is the Panthers deserve a ton of credit for flirting with NHL history. The league’s record winning streak is 17 games set by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins, a team featuring Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

Hey, wait a minute. Jagr is still playing all these years later at the age of 43, and for the Panthers, no less.

Whether there is more magic coming for the Panthers franchise this season is up to the Nordic gods, I suppose. If nothing else we must pause to compare what this team accomplished against the other major league outfits in our area.

As you might guess, the Marlins don’t measure up very well in this category heralding consistent success.

Longest win streaks for South Florida teams

Team                                     Streak                             Year       

Miami Heat                           27 games                              2013

Miami Dolphins                   18 games                       1972 plus 1 ’73 game

Florida Panthers                   12 games                             2015-16

Miami Marlins                         9 games                       4 times, last in 2006

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

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.

[Top 10 reasons Nick Saban probably never watched the Letterman show]

[Making GM the manager is akin to Loria managing the Marlins himself]

[When was last time Gators had new coaches in football and basketball?]

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.

Tampa fans get Lightning-quick lesson in winning

This column from sports columnist Dave George originally appeared in the Palm Beach Post on Oct. 8, 1992:

Bring a glacial game to a tropical setting and there’s bound to be some fog. So it was Wednesday night in the final minutes before the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning broke the ice for the NHL in Florida with a shocking 7-3 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.

“Hey, Tony, good luck,” shouted a neophyte puckhead with a silly grin on his face and his right hand extended toward the tuxedo-clad president and general manager of the Lightning.

“I’m Phil, but thanks anyway,” said Phil Esposito, Tony’s older brother and one of the game’s most recognizable faces. Esposito is the name that gave this franchise instant credibility but Kokusai pays the freight.

Now before you get all upset about Japanese ownership of a North American pro franchise, remember that everything about hockey in Florida is foreign, right down to the tans on the fans.

This is the team that wasn’t supposed to get off the ground, so tardy and troubled was the effort to raise the $50 million franchise fee. Esposito was asked at a crucial moment in the process how in the world he got a bunch of Japanese money men interested in hockey.
“They thought I said saki,” replied the only man who could sell pucks in paradise.

It won’t always be this easy but this is a day Tampa won’t soon forget.

George Steinbrenner got a Defense Department contract to save his shipbuilding company from bankruptcy, Buccaneers coach Sam Wyche got a standing ovation at the Lightning game and for one shining moment a greatly overlooked sports market got to enjoy that major league feeling.

Wednesday the Lightning played their first regular-season game in what can only be described as the world’s largest warehouse at the center of the Florida State Fairgrounds. The promise of a new arena can wait. 

Tampa Bay fans, banking on baseball since Joe Garagiola had hair, are a patient, and appreciative, lot. They sat through opening ceremonies Wednesday that delayed the scheduled start of the game by nearly an hour, suffering gladly the corny jokes of master of ceremonies Alan Thicke.

THE ONLY ROAD HOME

Thicke may have been out there because he is Canadian and thus entitled by hockey law to stay on the ice until someone with bigger muscles and fewer teeth pushes him out of the crease. More likely it’s because the sitcom that made him famous is called Growing Pains.

What expansion team could resist that theme?

The NHL seemed intent on getting the Lightning off to a good start, right down to bringing a big-name team in for opening night.

“At first, they had us scheduled to play our first five games on the road,” Esposito said. “I told them we weren’t going to go. They let Ottawa (the other 1992 expansion team) open up at home. I told the kid who makes up the schedules we were opening at home, too. We paid $50 million, didn’t we?”

Esposito digs hard for his goals, punching up interest in the team last month with a one-game exhibition performance by a woman goalie, Manon Rheaume. She’s with a minor league team in Atlanta now, but the Lightning were intent on making a similar dent in tradition in Wednesday’s regular-season opener.

And what a spectacle it was. Tampa Bay went wild with five goals in the first period against last year’s Stanley Cup finalists. But those are merely statistics. Here are the ballistics.

CHILLING OUT

Before the game was a minute old, there was a helmet spinning behind the Tampa Bay goal. Fortunately, it was empty, but in this game it always pays to check.

The first mass shoving match came with two minutes gone and before long there were three Blackhawks pressing the walls of the penalty box outward, three beefy tuna stuffed in a sardine tin.

Chris Kontos had two Lightning goals, both of them short-handed before some red-sweatered Chicago boosters had popped their third beers, and that’s fast working, friends.

He got two more in the second period, giving concessionaires a suggested name and a number to put on those Lightning sweaters they were selling blank to fired-up fans on their way out the door.

Since my first experience on ice skates came just two months ago and resulted in a broken elbow, there’s no point in feigning any particular expertise in this game.

This much, however, I do know. The Lightning’s first-round draft pick, Roman Hamrlik, has just been cleared to play by his team, ZPS Zlin (Czechoslovakia). That’s not to be confused with the smaller program with the same name, ZPS Zlin (Ohio).

Buy a bag of Berlitz tapes if you’re really interested in finding out more about the only game that can give you chills without leaving the state. But be prepared to learn fast.

The Lightning, 6-2-1 in preseason play and 1-0 in real life, certainly are.