When I was in Sunrise, Fla., a few weeks back to work with Roberto Luongo on our current magazine edition, I attended the pre-season game between Luongo's Panthers and the visiting Dallas Stars. And as I said at the time, I was more surprised to see bare white rink boards than I was the minuscule crowd in attendance. Given the failures of the many Panthers teams that came before the current one, I didn't think a Standing Room Only ticket policy would be in effect.
So I have to say, it feels like as if everyone was getting worked up a little too much Monday when next to nobody showed up at the BB&T Center to see the Ottawa Senators come to town. Sure, the optics of seeing row upon row of empty seats has to be sobering to Panthers fans worried about the future of their team in South Florida. But it wasn't as if there was all sorts of optimism abounding before new owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu bought the team last season. The reality is, anyone who has seen this team struggle on and off the ice for the grand majority of the past two decades understands just what a long road to respectability there is ahead for the organization.
When I met with Cifu for the story, he gave me the distinct impression they were under no illusions as to the challenges of the market. It's very likely he and Viola expect there will be a string of games attended this poorly. But if the team can't do anything on the ice to begin with, it's not about blaming the fans in Florida for staying away. They have every right to not support a perennially mismanaged team.
Here's how much of an issue fan support is in Florida: when I asked their fan club president how many members they had, she gingerly explained that they were currently hovering around the two hundred person mark – yes, two hundred – and at the team's low point, that number had dropped to seventy-five. This year, she explained, they're hoping to increase their ranks to 250.
That's what two decades of stumbling, bumbling and unfulfilled promise will do to a fan base. So it shouldn't be a shock that nobody much wanted to see a hometown team they don't yet trust take on a Canadian team from a town nobody in Florida cares about.
There will be more nights like this for the Panthers this season – circle the Winnipeg Jets' next visit as one of those nights – and the only real question is how long ownership can continue to lose money on a massive scale (some $20 million a season, as estimated by team president Michael Yormark). If they can hold on long enough to get the team turned around, maybe there's a way to keep the franchise there long term.
So don't get too excited tonight, Quebec hockey fans. The Panthers have some serious issues to clear up, but all these empty seats in the stands don't necessarily mean there will immediately be a relocated Panthers team and filled seats in a Quebec City NHL arena.
It's not quite the sunset of hockey in Sunrise just yet.