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HOCKEY RINK RATS THEY'RE CALLED THE PANTHERS, BUT THEY SIT ATOP THE LEAGUE THANKS IN PART TO A RODENT

Nov. 20, 1995
Nov. 20, 1995

Table of Contents
Nov. 20, 1995

HOCKEY RINK RATS THEY'RE CALLED THE PANTHERS, BUT THEY SIT ATOP THE LEAGUE THANKS IN PART TO A RODENT

The rat died against a wall in the Florida Panthers' crowded
dressing room at Miami Arena. The exact spot, maybe four inches
below a shelf holding a plastic bin containing three varieties
of gum for nervous hockey players, has been memorialized with an
off- kilter circle drawn on the wall in felt-tip pen under the
inscription R.I.P. RAT 1. The date of the event, 10-8-95, is
written below the off-kilter circle. That date was when the
strangeness began.

This is an article from the Nov. 20, 1995 issue Original Layout

"We were all dressed, ready to go on the ice for the first home
game of the season," Scott Mellanby, a 29-year-old Panther right
wing, says to begin the story of stories in this young NHL
season. "The rat came into the room. Understandably, there was a
lot of commotion. Everyone got pretty nervous and excited. I got
nervous and excited. I guess I just reacted."

He was holding his hockey stick at the time. A lifetime of
training and practice somehow took control. What to do? He
wheeled back, getting a good body turn, good extension, head
down and unloaded the mother of all slap shots. The blade of the
stick caught the rat squarely across the midsection. The rat
flew through the air. The rat hit the wall underneath the bin of
chewing gum and fell to the dressing room floor. Dead.

"I one-timed it," Mellanby says, using the hockey term for a
quick slapper. "I wasn't even thinking."

That might have been the end of the story of stories--rodent dead
due to a one-timer--except Mellanby left the room and scored two
goals that night and the Panthers beat the Calgary Flames 4-3
for their first win. Florida goalie John Vanbiesbrouck told
reporters that Mellanby didn't have a hat trick, but he did have
a "rat trick." The story was printed, and some fan threw a
rubber rat on the ice after a Panther goal in the next home
game, or maybe the game after that. Then a few more fans threw
rubber rats after goals in the next game, and the Panthers kept
scoring and winning and ... who could make up all this stuff? A
third-year expansion team now has the best record in the NHL,
and a rain of vulcanized rats descends on the Miami Arena ice on
a regular basis.

The Panthers? The best team in hockey? Religions have been
started with less substance than this. The not-so-meek have
inherited the rubber-rat earth.

"I remember when I was coming down here for my first meeting
about putting this team together," Panther president Bill Torrey
says. "I was sitting next to this elderly woman on the plane.
She was going on a cruise or something, and she had two little
bottles of Scotch lined up on her tray table. She asked me where
I was going and what I was doing. I told her that I was going to
Miami to see about starting a professional hockey team there.
She picked up the two bottles of Scotch and put them on my
table. She said, 'Here, you're going to need these more than me.'"

Three years in the league, and magic has happened on the ice.
Some double-Scotch problems may remain off the ice--there is a
good chance the Florida Panthers might be the Nashville Panthers
or the Atlanta Panthers or Somebody Else's Panthers this time
next year--but a team led by a rookie coach and filled with
Foreign Legion veterans from an expansion draft and with a few
topflight prospects from recent junior drafts is shocking people
nightly.

With a 4-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres last Saturday night
at the Arena, rats flying everywhere, the Panthers won their
sixth straight game and improved their record to 13-4-0. Better
than the New York Rangers'. Better than the Pittsburgh Penguins'
or the defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils'. Better
than everyone else's. Eleven of Florida's first 17 games might
have been played at home, and by the end of the year sarcastic
ESPN announcers might not be calling the Panthers "the best
hockey team in the world," but now is now and numbers are
numbers. Magic is magic.

"My wife even said to me, 'Tell the truth, didn't you think
you'd be 4-13 instead of 13-4 at the start?'" says Doug MacLean,
Florida's 41-year-old first-year coach. "I told her I really
hadn't predicted a record, but I did know I was scared to death
of our schedule. I looked at all those home games and wondered
what we would do if we had trouble early. Home games are good,
but suppose you don't win them? Then you're going on the road,
trying to turn yourselves around."

MacLean, who owns a master's degree in psychology but had never
been an NHL head coach, replaced Roger Neilson, who guided the
Panthers during the first two years of their existence. The
change was made because management wanted the younger players on
the roster to get more ice time. Neilson, a veteran of assorted
stops in the league, liked to play defensive-minded veterans to
keep the scores low and the expansion team competitive. MacLean
was hired to open up the attack and to play the kids. Mistakes
were supposed to be part of the new package.

"I guess the first indication that we might be better than I
thought came a few days after I got the job," MacLean says. "I
called Brian Skrudland, who's our captain, and I told him what
we were going to do. I warned him that by playing the kids, we
probably would take a step backward for a while. He said that he
thought I was wrong, that I was going to be surprised by what I
found. He said no team in hockey worked any harder than this
one. He said he thought that the kids were ready and that we
wouldn't step back one bit."

One strength the Panthers have possessed from their inception is
goaltending. Because established teams were allowed to protect
only one netminder during the 1993 expansion draft, Florida
wound up with Vanbiesbrouck and Mark Fitzpatrick. No team in
hockey has a stronger one-two goalie combination.

A more subtle strength has been the atmosphere of hard work.
Torrey, who built the New York Islanders from scratch into a
team that won four straight Stanley Cups (1980-83), went for
"character" players in the expansion draft. He wanted players
who would be good influences on the kids, who would eventually
become the stars.

"We looked at each other when we got here and realized that we
were all here for the same reason," says the 32-year-old
Skrudland, who played eight seasons with the Montreal Canadiens.
"Basically, we were here because somebody else didn't want us.
That drew us together. It was like no one was better than anyone
else. We all had to work together, to try and make each other
better. We established an attitude that anyone could say
anything to anyone else. I'm a strong believer that constructive
criticism doesn't hurt anyone. It might be a disappearing
quality in sports, because money changes a lot of things, but
we're trying to keep it going here."

The kids, like 20-year-old center Rob Niedermayer and
19-year-old defenseman Ed Jovanovski, first-round draft choices
the team's first two seasons, have fit in nicely.
Eighteen-year-old winger Radek Dvorak, the first-round pick in
July, has even fit in. Dvorak, a native of the Czech Republic,
may not know much English and his parents may have gone to
Florida for an extended visit to help his transition into
American culture, but he has fit in quickly. As of Sunday,
Dvorak had scored six goals.

MacLean has tried to mix veterans and kids on lines and has not
been afraid to put kids in power-play and late-game situations.
("I have to say I learned a lot by being on the bench last
year," Niedermayer says. "I learned I didn't like being on the
bench.") The veterans have become almost assistant coaches,
preaching, helping one another and covering up on defense.
Surprisingly, the improved offense has not hurt the defense.
Vanbiesbrouck and Fitzpatrick are the final erasers for
mistakes. It all works for now.

"We work together, all of us," Skrudland says. "I gave Dvorak
his nickname, Dork. He says, 'What is Dork?' I said, 'That's
your name, but it's not what you are. It's just a name.' He
says, 'But what is dork?' I said, 'Something like a nerd, but
you're not a nerd, either. It's just a name.' He says, 'But what
is nerd?'"

The original plan for the team was that by the time it started
to improve, maybe not this year but soon, it would move into a
new arena somewhere north of Miami. Owner Wayne Huizenga, the
former Blockbuster baron who also owns the Florida Marlins and
the Miami Dolphins, envisioned building Blockbuster Park, a
sports, entertainment and retailing complex in Broward County
that would have had a modern arena. That idea was scrapped a
year ago, however, when Huizenga sold Blockbuster to Viacom.

Huizenga now says he is losing $1.2 million per month on the
Panthers because of a rental agreement with Miami Arena--where
have you heard this before?--that doesn't provide enough revenue
from luxury boxes, concessions, parking, etc. In the middle of
the rat miracle last week, with Florida politicians debating
proposals to build an arena, he officially announced that he
would entertain offers to sell the team.

"We're back at square one," Torrey says. "The problem down here
is that there are so many different political groups you have to
deal with. It isn't like being in New York or Detroit or
someplace where you deal with one set of politicians. Here you
have Palm Beach County, Broward County, Dade County, all with
different ideas. You have all these things working against you.
Give Wayne credit. He's losing $1.2 million a month, and he
wants to put that money, instead, into some building. You lose
$1.2 million a month for three years, and that's more than $40
million you could be putting into a building somewhere."

The players joke darkly about the corporate future, wondering if
they should start paying attention to country music because they
may be calling Nashville home next year, but they don't spend a
lot of time worrying about it. Their immediate interest is in
the magical present. Who would have thought any of this was
possible? They still practice at the Gold Coast Ice Arena in
Pompano Beach, 40 miles north of Miami, dressing in a remodeled
former bingo hall that draws a confused senior citizen now and
then to the door with the question, "Hey, what happened to the
bingo?" But when they play the games in Miami, they are in a
changed and wondrous environment.

They can play with anybody. Play? They can beat anybody. Goals
seem to come easily, and wins are more commonplace when rats
fall from the heavens and slide and skid across the ice, as many
as 200 a night. Two "exterminators" in Orkin uniforms help clear
the on-ice mess. Pictures of rats are printed on T-shirts. The
Panther dressing room has been renamed The Rats Nest. The story
of stories grows better and better. It has become almost a fairy
tale.

"But put this in," says Mellanby, member of the best hockey team
in the world. "I did apologize to the animal rights activists. I
didn't mean to kill the rat. I just reacted."

O.K., a modern fairy tale.

COLOR PHOTO: JERRY WACHTERFlorida has been tough both on the ice and in the dressing room, where a replica of the slain intruder remains. [Player for Florida Panthers struggling with opponent]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS[See caption above--rubber rat]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Vanbiesbrouck (in mask) has provided the Panthers with solid goaltending and plenty of spunk. [John Vanbiesbrouck]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANSSkrudland works the refs--and adds leadership. [Brian Skrudland arguing with referees]COLOR PHOTO: AL MESSERSCHMIDT This year youngsters like Niedermayer (44) have blossomed. [Rob Niedermayer]