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.