SUNRISE, Fla. — Toward the end of February, I spent several days with the Florida Panthers for an SI magazine story available here. Now divisional champions for just the second time in franchise history and proud owners of their only 100-point season, fueled by a clandestine relationship with actor Kevin Spacey, the Panthers opened their 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Thursday at BB&T Center with a 5–4 loss to the New York Islanders.
We’ve put together some leftover tales from the wackiest team in hockey. Covered topics include chakra, golf, rescue animals and rotisserie chicken. Enjoy.
Jaromir Jagr on spirituality
Not only did 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr become the oldest player to record a 60-point season—he finished with 66, ranked 21st in the league—but his 2.82 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, according to Corsica.hockey, topped the NHL. The secret? For the past 15 years, Jagr said, he has explored the Indian religious concept of chakra, a Sanskrit word meaning “wheel.” Belief holds that the body has seven main chakra nodes, situated along the spine. The more aligned and open these energy centers are, the better the body performs.
And no one’s performing more impressively in today’s NHL than Jagr.
“I don’t really separate religion,” he said. “I believe in one God and love and good. But the chakra, it’s a way you open up. It’s your body getting energy. There are a lot of ways you can get energy. The older you are, you’ve got to use different ways. Maybe when you’re young you’ve got so much energy because you’re young, all you need is from sleep or food.
“But when you get older you need it from somewhere else,” Jagr continued. “Chakra is one way to do it. When you open up your chakras, the positive energy come to you. The muscles need energy. That’s what it is. It’s information energy. This is life. That’s nothing else.
“I think you need energy for your muscles, first of all. You need to open up. When you open up your chakras, I think you’re mentally a lot stronger, so you don’t get frustrated easily. No matter what happens, you’re not too high, not too low. You’re mentally stronger. You don’t block yourself, emotion blocking you. When you’re free and you don’t really give a s--- about anything, you cannot get blocked. Not too high, not too low.”
Jagr said there are “a million ways” to access one’s chakra, ranging from quiet meditation to YouTube videos of certain musical frequencies. “You can do it with exercise,” he said. “You can ask God to help you to open it.” He does not often discuss these practices, except with strength coach Tommy Powers, and adds that few have bothered asking either. He also says he plans to write a book, in his native Czech, explaining how these beliefs have allowed him to log 1,629 games, 1,868 points, five scoring titles and one Hart Trophy over 22 NHL seasons, not to mention three years with Omsk Avangard of the KHL. He declines to share specific methods, “because it’s nobody’s business.” But he’s happy to engage on a broader level.
“Hockey is helping me to do it because I can feel every change,” Jagr said. “If somebody else does it and they decided to do some exercise or change something, they won’t feel it right away. But the games I play all the time, I know how I feel. The game’s really helping me to tell me if I’m on the right track or not, if I do the right way or not. My body already knows how I feel. If I’m on the right track, I know I’m going to feel better the next day or the next week.”
Why 37-year-old Roberto Luongo, who strung together the best goaltending season in franchise history with 35 wins, four shutouts, a .922 save percentage and 2.35 goals against average, hates the phrase “riding into the sunset”
“That’s not who I am,” Luongo said. “I’m a competitor. I always want to be the best I can be. People who say that don’t know me as a person and don’t know my character. That’s why it got under my skin a little bit when I’d hear that. It’s a few things. Obviously Florida is a retirement place, mostly. But a lot of people still view the team, before this year, as a franchise that didn’t have success and was never going to be in contention. That was the main reason people said that. But I’m happy to see now that we’re in the mix and hopefully we’ll be.”
Goaltending coach Rob Tallas on acquiring Luongo from Vancouver in March 2014
“I don't know what management was doing at the time,” Tallas said. “I think we were in Boston and I remember coming down and Dale Tallon grabbing me and saying we have an opportunity to trade for Roberto here. We both looked at each other. It wasn’t even a question. It was more of as statement like, ‘We’re getting Roberto back.’”
How golf put the Panthers’ ascension into motion
During the 2009–10 season, Tallon worked in limbo. Well, worked is a little strong. “I was pushed aside to senior advisor, let’s be honest,” Tallon said, which meant that instead of running the Chicago Blackhawks as their GM, which he had done since 2003, he moved to Florida, called every Monday and always heard there was nothing to do. Demoted not long after the team missed its deadline for qualifying restricted free agents, the former standout junior golfer decided to hit the links.
Through Bob Pulford, an old colleague in Chicago, Tallon got in touch with Panthers executive Bill Torrey, the first GM in team history. The reason? Not that Tallon was looking for work, even though he had been granted permission to seek employment elsewhere. He just wanted to cross off Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla., from his bucket list and Torrey was a member.
The foursome included Tallon, Torrey, Pulford and Lou Nanne, the former player, coach and GM. During the round, Torrey and Tallon started chatting. Without a postseason appearance since 2000, the Panthers needed a new GM to rebuild the roster. “You want to get back into it right away?” Torrey wondered, hypothetically. “Yeah,” Tallon replied, “I don’t want to sit around.” Hearing this, Torrey invited Tallon to return and play Floridian National Golf Club in Palm City. He stayed a few extra days, met with then-minority partner Wayne Huizenga and agreed to the challenge. “I put my offer across the table to him and he slid one back and it was almost the same,” Tallon said. “On his daughter’s birthday, no less.”
The story behind their preseason trip to the Everglades
As a U.S. Military Academy graduate and former soldier in the 101st Airborne Division, Panthers owner Vinnie Viola has infused his military background into his latest venture. Before the 2014–15 season, he and partner Doug Cifu took the Panthers on a team-building trip to West Point, where they found their new post-win award, a Dress Gray jacket. This year, they retreated into the Everglades.
Among the activities performed at the Army Ranger base: Huffing sand bags along a dirt road, rappelling down walls and firing guns at the range. “I looked to my left and there’s Jaromir Jagr with an M-4, a guy who’s obviously got some pretty good hand-eye coordination, watching him shoot at a target 100 yards away,” Cifu said. Forward Jussi Jokinen, who performed compulsory service for the Finnish military, had the best aim, Cifu added.
Afterward, the team held a pig roast over a bonfire, camped in (furnished) cabins and, to cap everything off, saw a caged live panther that a rescue group brought. “That thing was feisty,” center Vincent Trocheck said. “I don't think anyone was petting it. We were joking that for a selling point, they should bring the panther to the game like Jackie Moon [in Will Ferrell’s basketball movie Semi-Pro] brought the bear and someone should wrestle it in the middle of the ice. That probably wouldn’t go over well.”
Head coach Gerard Gallant on his surprise midseason extension
“To be honest with you I had no idea it was coming. I still had a year and a half left,” he said. “I still had next year too. I know they re-upped Dale and they brought in [associate GM] Tom Rowe. They gave Dale three years and I guess they talked about it and said we’re happy with the way the coach’s staff is going. They just brought it up to me, the next day we did it.”
Why teammates started calling center Nick Bjugstad, “Rotisserie Chicken”
“Totally meaningless story,” said Bjugstad, who finished eighth on Florida with 34 points as its third-line center. “But these guys somehow want to throw me under the bus in an ESPN interview, then it gets out, the fans see it, they see I’m like, ‘Oh man, really?’ It’s such a dumb story that it’s not even worth the nickname. But the fans see it, they see I get annoyed. I guess I might as well put it out there. I was going to put it out there anyway.
“I was going to dinner one night. I was starving. I was so hungry I couldn’t even think. And some of the guys were out to dinner. I was headed to dinner, couldn’t find parking, so I just flipped a switch and went to Publix and got a rotisserie chicken. I texted them and said I’m not making it to dinner, sorry. They thought it was the funniest thing that I just gave out on dinner.
“I don't know, the next day ESPN was there, and I don't know if they talked about it before or what. So that’s the story. Literally nothing to it. That’s what I mean. A lot of times stories have nothing to do with it. My teammates thought it was funny. I didn’t, but it turned into a big deal. Now there are rotisserie chicken signs. Someone threw a chicken wing on the ice the other night instead of a plastic rat. I should’ve embraced it like the Hamburglar [Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond] where he ate the burger.”
Cifu on why he can’t tell anyone what Spacey in Space means
“Shawn Thornton told me he would beat the crap of me if I told anybody,” he said. “And have you met Shawn Thornton? He’s a big, scary guy. I went to Shawn and he told me and the players told me but he said, ‘if you tell anybody, I’ll hurt you.’”