Le Batard points at his own family as evidence of the burgeoning interest. His parents were born and raised in Cuba. Until recently neither had ever been to a hockey game. Neither knew anything about the sport. Le Batard's father, Gonzalo, asked Dan if the puck was "made of steel." His mother, Lourdes, watched a Florida- Philadelphia playoff game thinking for half of it that the Flyers were the Panthers because they had the letter P on their jerseys. Game 6 against Pittsburgh, a 4-3 Florida win, was the second game his parents attended. "My father was crying at the end," Dan says. "He's not an emotional man. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I've ever seen him cry. This was one of them."
The fans have been drawn in by the magic of an underdog fighting for a championship. Never mind that many don't know—or care—about such technicalities as off-sides and icing. Score a goal. Throw a rat. What's hard about that? Approximately 40 arena attendants, dressed in Orkin Exterminating uniforms in a fine show of instant commercialism, run onto the ice with large buckets to clean up the rodents as the opposing goalie huddles inside his net for safety.
"The number of rats gets bigger and bigger," says Danny Reiter, a member of the Orkin-sponsored cleanup crew. "After the first goal in the first home game of the series against Pittsburgh, we filled two barrels for the first time this season. There must have been, what, 3,000 rats on the ice?"
"There are the rubber ones, the plastic ones and these kind of furry ones that some people throw," says Reiter's sister Jodi, who also works on the crew. "The furry ones are the ones you don't really want to touch. Do you know what I mean? They're too real. Creepy. You get hit off the head a lot. It's like people are aiming for you. I got hit off the head the other night with a computer mouse."
The No. 1 question for Panthers public relations director Greg Bouris is "What happens to all those rats after they're taken from the ice?" His answer: "They're destroyed humanely." DeMott delivers a monotone Miranda-like warning over the P.A. system before each game, telling fans they should not be throwing "anything onto the ice at any time," but team owner Wayne Huizenga wears a white rat pin on his suit coat. His wife, Marti, throws rats. His son Wayne Jr. also throws rats.
"He throws out a rat that has a string attached to it," one of the Orkin workers says of Wayne Jr. "You go to pick up the rat and he pulls the string. Scares you to death."
"How old is he?" another worker asks. "About 10 years old?"
"No, he must be 30, maybe 35."
The Panthers' success is best illustrated by the dark stitches and purple lines across the faces of the players. A black eye for Mellanby. Three stitches and a broken nose for Tom Fitzgerald. Ten stitches for Stu Barnes. Three missing teeth for Radek Dvorak. Aside from Vanbiesbrouck, this is a no-star, low-budget operation—which is part of its charm. Work harder. Work longer. Dive. Fight. Survive. Two months ago the faces wouldn't have been recognized five steps away from the team's practice rink in Pompano Beach. Now a disc jockey does his show from the Miami Arena parking lot. A woman brings a special blend of five grapefruit juices for the players, Panther Punch. A man brings his homemade banana bread. The unknown players are becoming known.
"This team is still in kind of an embryonic stage in a lot of ways," says Florida president Bill Torrey, the architect of the New York Islanders' four Stanley Cup championships from 1980 to '83. "The Islanders were much more developed. We have no big playmaker on this team. We have no 50-goal scorer. What we do have is great team speed, four lines that all play our system and two forecheckers who go deep. With [6'2", 210-pound] Eddie Jovanovski and [6'1", 210-pound] Rhett Warrener, we added size and strength at the blue line. And we work. This isn't a team that will just go away."