The morning after his team had knocked off the Canadiens in Montreal, Florida Panthers co-owner Doug Cifu was still beaming.
"Hey, we're the Atlantic Division champs," he said. "It's a great day."
He's not just saying that as a guy who's imagining what a few extra dates at the BB&T Center will mean to the bottom line. Cifu, who purchased the team with his partner, Vincent Viola, back in 2013, is a Panthers super-fan, always willing to engage the team's supporters on social media or help promote hockey in South Florida.
The Panthers are in his blood. And he's especially proud of what they've accomplished this season. "I'm not saying we're like [the Miracle on Ice] but I think we exceeded expectations," he says.
He's proud of the resurgence of interest in the team as well. South Florida fans are coming back in droves as the Panthers have put together a franchise-record 46 wins and 101 points. And that interest might not remain local for much longer.
Fans in 14 cities will be looking for a new team to follow when the Stanley Cup playoffs kick off next week. So we asked Cifu: Why should they climb aboard the Panthers bandwagon?
Here's his pitch:
"We're a little bit of a motley crew. We've got the oldest player in the NHL, our third leading scorer, and an absolute legend in Jaromir Jagr. It's akin to watching a Michael Jordan-type. You watch him and that's who comes to mind. He's playing like he's 25 years old again. And he's growing his mullet out.
"We've got a lot of great young guys that I think will be stars in league for a really long time, too. Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad ... these are exciting players. So I think we're a pretty appealing team.”
"For some bizarre reason that I don't understand, Kevin Spacey has adopted the Panthers as his team. Hey, this is a team that only Keyser Söze could love.
"There's always the mystery. Will Mr. Spacey show up for the playoffs? He indicated he would consider it. We don't know when or where, but I have a feeling he's going to pop up again.”
"I know there were some dark days in the past. I know there was something like 7,000 [fans] for a Tuesday night game against Ottawa. But it's a very different experience now. We played a game a couple weeks ago and we had 20,000-plus in the building. It's a huge place. I'm still discovering new places I haven't been. We can pack 'em in here. For the playoffs, hopefully it'll be a sea of red. It's going to be a great atmosphere. We're gonna give out towels or t-shirts ... but nothing that can be easily thrown.”
“We're the only franchise that could try to do a great thing for our fans and get penalized, not once but twice, for it. We were trying to celebrate our history. You know the story. We made the Stanley Cup Final in our third year of existence. Scott Mellanby had the rat trick, then we had fans throwing the rats on the ice.
“So, the marketing guys—I had nothing to do with it, but I thought it was a great idea—they said, 'Let's buy 10,000 rats and give 'em out to the fans on the 20th anniversary of that 1996 team. And after we scored the first goal and the rats started to fly, I thought, 'Oh boy, we have a problem here.'
"It ended up being a great marketing ploy. Thankfully, we won the game. If we hadn't, I don't think the coach or the GM would have ever talked to me again. We ended up all over the local and national news for what I think was a pretty positive story. But the big thing is the fans loved it. They really loved it.
"So here's what we're gonna do in the playoffs: We've locked up the rats until the third period. They're in a steel cage, and only three people have the key. We're gonna price 'em at $20 each, and sell them for charity. My theory is that people won't throw a $20 bill on the ice, but when you give 'em out for free, they're happy to throw 'em. All the proceeds will go to the Panthers Foundation, which does a lot of great work in South Florida.
"Hopefully, we'll win and people will have fun with it. And yeah, I'll admit it: It is kind of fun and cathartic to throw the rat."