The middle-aged man said he had two rubber rats stuffed in his crotch. He said he had two more rats stuffed in his armpits. There were other rats, too, he said, hidden in other places on his body, but he declined to elaborate. Fair enough. "I have enough rats," he said, "to do the job."
It was late in the afternoon on one of those 90� spring days in Miami that tell you summer has arrived in South Florida and the next easy breath might not be drawn in these parts until sometime in late September. The man was standing across the street from Miami Arena a few minutes before Game 3 or Game 4 or maybe even Game 6 of the Florida Panthers' Eastern Conference finals series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It's hard to say which game because—looking now at the dizzying swirl of celebration that has engulfed the Miami area during the NHL playoffs—everything has become a blur. The man was wearing a sponge-rubber hat shaped like a wedge of cheese. Heads and tails from rubber rats stuck out from the sponge-rubber wedge of cheese. The rats' eyes blinked electronically. The eyes were red.
Miami! Rats! Hockey! The improbable Panthers were on their joyride to the Stanley Cup finals against the almost-as-improbable Colorado Avalanche and...and what? Rubber and plastic rats were being thrown from the rafters of Miami Arena to celebrate every Florida goal. The shower of synthetic rats had grown heavier with each playoff round and by last week had turned into a veritable Biblical plague. Hockey was being discussed in Spanish at the sidewalk caf�s in South Beach. Singers at the Howl at the Moon Saloon club in Coconut Grove were being drowned out by the chant "Let's Go, Panthers!"
"You have to sneak the rats into the building," the man, Dan Platt, a telephone worker from Hollywood Beach, Fla., said. "You can't just walk into the arena carrying a rat, you know. They check you. Security. They make men take off their hats. They open women's pocketbooks. If you get caught, you have to check the rats at Guest Relations. That's if you get caught."
"The other day we tried to figure out how much people had paid for all the rats that have been thrown on the ice this year," Dean Jordan, the Panthers' vice president of business operations, said after Florida, a third-year expansion team, completed its run to the finals with a 3-1 road win over the favored Pittsburgh Penguins last Saturday night. "We know roughly how many rats have been thrown, and we have a pretty good idea how much they cost. The estimate we made was $55,000. Think about that—$55,000 worth of rats."
From one rat intruder in the locker room, killed by Florida winger Scott Mellanby's stick moments before the Panthers took the ice for their home opener on Oct. 8, to $55,000 worth of synthetic rats being heaved onto the ice to celebrate a march to the Stanley Cup finals: Has so strange a good-luck ritual—Mellanby's deadly stick scored two goals that first night, and the story of his exploits in the dressing room and on the ice begat one rat, two rats, now thousands of rats—ever grown so large? Has there ever been a more extreme contrast of cold-weather sport and warm-weather city? Sled-dog racing in Cairo! Hockey in Miami!
"It's all happened so fast, I don't think any of us knows what's hit us," said Jordan. "The franchise was awarded in December of 1992, but we didn't really set up shop, have an office and everything, until June of 1993. Our first season started in September of 1993. None of the business people, myself included, knew anything about hockey. I remember a meeting that June, we had this big pad and a pencil and we were telling our people, 'O.K., we're in the Atlantic Division, and these are the names of the other teams in our division.' That's how basic we had to be."
A team that three years ago didn't even know what its fan base would be—one mistaken thought early on was that vacationers from the North would be among the primary ticket buyers—has suddenly discovered in the playoffs that the base reaches everywhere and includes everyone. From the Keys to Palm Beach and beyond, a love affair has developed in a hurry. As the Panthers' recycled journeymen and teenage draft choices, backed by All-Star goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, rolled through the Boston Bruins in five games, the Philadelphia Flyers in six and the Penguins in seven, the mania grew.
Supermarkets in the Miami area are selling special rat cakes—cupcakes with rats drawn in frosting on the top. Players are being given standing ovations when they walk into bagel shops for breakfast. At Joe Robbie Stadium on Saturday night, the Florida Marlins showed Game 7 of the Panthers-Penguins series on the mega-screen between innings. Miami Arena public address announcer John DeMott was on hand to call the Florida goals with his familiar cry of "Pannnnnnthers!" After each of the three Florida tallies, the ballpark rang with shouts of "Goal!"
"It's all happened overnight," Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard said last weekend. "If any columnist in South Florida tells you that before April he knew the color of the blue line, he'd be lying. Now we're all writing about backchecking schemes in the neutral zone."