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.