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.
"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."