There was controversy in the Florida Panthers' dressing room last Friday over the big trade: a stunning Barry Sanders-for- Chris Warren swap that could have serious implications for the Panthers' fantasy football league. Now, the league is not to be confused with the Panthers' NFL pool, which was won the first week by defenseman Robert Svehla, a Slovak whose football insights consist of knowing which NFL cities (among those that also have NHL franchises) have the best restaurants. The Panthers also have a golf pool and a fantasy basketball league.
Do you think the Miami Heat players held an NHL fantasy draft? "To be honest," says Panthers right wing Ray Sheppard, "I doubt the guys on the Heat know who we are."
But what if the Heat players, the Panthers' co-tenants in the Miami Arena, were to have an NHL draft anyway? Which Florida players—other than goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, the NHL Player of the Month for October—would they select? Panthers forward Bill Lindsay guessed that he might be taken, but only if the draft lasted 15 rounds. "Hey, Dave," Lindsay shouted across the room to left wing Dave Lowry, "has this team ever had a guy who averaged a point a game?"
Lowry screwed up his face in mock disdain and said, "These are the Florida Panthers, for crying out loud."
The reality is that the Panthers are the ultimate fantasy team, not for get-a-life Rotisserie players but for those people who still believe in teamwork, sacrifice, effort and the other verities of sport that have been undermined by money, marketing, the star system and other modern ills. Florida, whose season-opening 12-game unbeaten streak was stopped by the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 last Saturday night, might be the last real team in pro sports.
There is no name above the marquee. There are no holdouts, no contract psychodramas, no $3 million men on the Panthers' $19 million payroll, which is about half that of the New York Rangers'. There are occasional discussions about ice time—"I initiate many of them myself," coach Doug MacLean says—but none of the arguments that routinely rend the fabric of supposedly tight-knit NHL teams.
MacLean uses four lines, six defensemen, three sets of penalty killers and two power-play units. "As a kid playing minor hockey," Sheppard says, "you used to go through one gate to the bench, rotate around and go back out through the other when it was your turn again. Everybody got a chance. This is the closest I've seen to that." At week's end 17 players had scored this season for the Panthers, who were 8-1-4. The eight game-winning goals had come from eight forwards.
When Philadelphia's Joel Otto nudged a puck past Vanbiesbrouck with 62 seconds left in Saturday night's game, he buried a Florida streak that was three non-losses short of the 12-0-3 record start by the 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers, who were graced with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and a handful of other players even the Heat's Alonzo Mourning might have heard of. The Panthers are hardly in a class with those Oilers, but they haven't been feasting on cream puffs, either. Nine of their first 13 games were against teams that made the final eight of last spring's Stanley Cup tournament. Four games were against the Rangers, three against the Flyers and one against the Colorado Avalanche in Denver—a 2-1 win over the team that swept the Panthers in the Cup finals.
When MacLean received a fax of Florida's 1996-97 schedule last summer at his cottage on Prince Edward Island, he scanned the first 15 games, figured he had seen enough and went back to the beach. If the Panthers could come through the first 15 games around .500, MacLean and others in the Florida organization figured, everything would be swell. "All we want to do," Lindsay says, "is show that we can contend with the elite teams in the league."
Don't look now, Bill, but the Panthers are an elite team: Stanley Cup finalists and masters of October. The truth is that the Flyers and the Rangers—beset by injuries and handicapped by the World Cup finals in September, which caused some star players to miss part of training camp—should have fretted about playing Florida. "They don't give you rings for record starts," said Panthers right wing Scott Mellanby after the loss to the Flyers quashed any thought that Florida might go, say, 55-0-27. "Our goals are loftier."