Friday October 16th, 2015

PHILADELPHIA – It was a foolish mission, truly, standing in the press box hallway at Wells Fargo Center and expecting uninterrupted conversation with Peter Luukko. Not here, in the rink he oversaw as president of the Philadelphia Flyers. Not now, with warm-ups underway for the home opener and Luukko visiting for the first time in his new job, as executive chairman for the Florida Panthers. Not with so many passing back-slappers, hand-shakers, thumbs-uppers and—hang on, hold that thought. Here come two more.

“Seanny!” Luukko says.

“Peter! What’s going on? How’s it being back?”

“Good, good.”

The new gig that coaxed Luukko back into the NHL, 14 months after his abrupt resignation, following more than a quarter-century as the COO of Comcast Spectacor, surprised many of those now seeking him out this Monday night. At the time, Luukko’s rationale involved cashing out from various ventures, investing in new ones and spending more time watching his two sons – Nick, a Flyers prospect currently in the ECHL, and Max, a defenseman playing on their affiliated junior team. His decision stunned them too, but soon Luukko was seeking their advice about this other project in Florida. They told him he should accept the offer, that missing their games was okay.

Florida Panthers 2015-16 preview

So on Feb. 5, Luukko formally became the executive chairman of Sunrise Sports and Entertainment, charged to, in his words today, “build it back.”

The initial nudge came from Commissioner Gary Bettman, who asked his friend—a member of the NHL’s Board of Governors—to connect with Panthers owner Vinnie Viola. Around that time last winter, the franchise was moving toward its 13th playoff absence in 14 seasons, asking Broward County for hefty financial support, and enduring what would become its worst attended season at BB&T Center by more than 3,000 tickets per game. It wasn’t unreasonable to wonder whether the Panthers were long for their current home, even though their lease at BB&T Center wouldn’t expire until 2028.

“Early on, I had some of the questions and my answer was simple: We’re committed to Florida,” Luukko said. “I use the fact that I came in and bought a condo. We cleared that up pretty quick, that relocation wasn’t in the cards.”

Luukko came with an enthusiasm rooted in his time taking over arenas and stadiums with another company, Global Spectrum, and in Florida he found a similar challenge. According to the Sun-Sentinel, the Panthers lost $36 million last season and $27.3 million in 2013-14 after Viola and partner Doug Cifu bought the team in Sept. 2013. But between the late-February trade for the enduring—and now re-mullet-ing—Jaromir Jagr; the league’s largest year-to-year standings improvement at 25 points; a promising young core led by former No. 1 pick Aaron Ekblad; a solid turnout when they hosted the NHL draft this June and a reported sellout of 19,434 for last Saturday’s opener (114% of capacity), Luukko had no reason for anything but optimism.

“I think people see the future of the team,” he said. “I think our messaging has been consistent and honest. I think you have to be honest with the fans. The fans have one hell of a b---s--- meter. If you’re just honest, telling them what you’re doing and what your plan is, how you’re going to grow the core along with some solid veterans, they’ll believe in that. Then you have to have success.”

Several days before the hiring was official, Panthers GM Dale Tallon met Luukko for lunch at Shula’s near Times Square, during a team road trip to play the Rangers. They talked for hours and quickly learned their beliefs aligned. “It was like we’d been together for a long time,” Tallon said. Change came fast. Luukko expanded a “limited sales staff, limited marketing staff” and “basically started from scratch” on the business side, making the media rounds and forming early-morning shinny hockey at the rink.

“He’s making them feel really like they’re a big part of it, and embracing their attitudes and their opinions,” Tallon said. “Plus he knows how to do it. He’s done it before. There’s belief there. Guys working in that side of it believe in what he’s doing because he has that history and that success.”

“We’re all in it together,” Luukko. “We’re feeling we’ve got a lot to prove, not only on the ice but on the business side. There’s that jump in everybody. We want to be significant in the league.”

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By the time the Panthers pulled into the loading dock at Wells Fargo Center and Luukko spotted the window of his old office from inside his new team’s bus, that opening-night sellout crowd had already witnessed them crush the Flyers by six goals on Saturday, before flying here to return the home-and-home. (“I think the gods at the league fixed that one for me,” Luukko laughed of the scheduling. “The fix was in.”) It felt bittersweet, Luukko said, walking into a visiting locker room he had only previously seen while looking for Max and Nick, who would hunt there for broken sticks to play knee hockey. But it was also nice seeing everyone—Seanny in the hallway and Joe outside the locker room and the Diamond brothers on the ice crew.

“You come back to a town like this, you want to win, because obviously we need the points and we want to get those points in October, but it’s not like there’s this huge satisfaction beating the old team,” he said. “These guys all want to win. You’ve been through the wars with them. But from 7 to 10 o’clock at night, you want to win the game for yourself. It’s great.”

Before long, Brayden Schenn’s first-period goal would give the Flyers a 1–0 victory and some measure of revenge for the thumping they took in Sunrise two days earlier. Luukko would find his office window again as the bus nosed toward the airport. A public workshop to debate the latest $86 million request from Broward County, which owns BB&T Center, was scheduled for Oct. 20. The regular season would chug along, through two more wins and their best four-game start since 2008-09, and the…actually, could we pick this up later? Pregame warm-ups are about to start. It would be nice to see what the Flyers had in store.

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