Every available ticket to Panthers games in 1997-98 has been sold, and more than 6,000 fans have inquired about season tickets for next year, when Florida moves into its new arena in Fort Lauderdale. All these ticket buyers aren't gobbling up hockey seats to enjoy the pleasures of the air conditioning.
Panthers hysteria traces back two seasons to the day when right wing Scott Mellanby killed a rat in the dressing room with his stick and Florida fans began celebrating goals by tossing plastic rats onto the ice. The overachieving Panthers reached the Stanley Cup finals that year in just their third season. Then last year, Florida lost its magic and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. "Last year we had high expectations," says Mellanby, "and we were disappointed when we fell short of our goals."
Florida was indeed short on its goals last season, when it lit the lamp just 221 times, the fewest of any playoff team. The Panthers hope to invigorate their offense with the free-agent signing of 32-year-old center Dave Gagner, who has scored 25 or more goals seven times in his career, and a return to form by center Kirk Muller, who was acquired last March and who had scored 30 or more goals five times in his 13-year career before scoring 21 in 1996-97.
The Panthers will carry at least seven players with less than three years of NHL experience, and coach Doug MacLean is counting on breakthrough seasons from some of them, including defenseman Ed Jovanovski, who suffered through a sophomore slump after a brilliant rookie year. MacLean is also high on fifth-year center Rob Niedermayer, who he believes can be an All-Star in 1997-98. "This is a tough league for kids to play in," MacLean says, "but these guys are ready."
Florida must fill a leadership void left when center Brian Skrudland, its captain, signed a free-agent deal with the Rangers. To that end Florida added the C to Mellanby's jersey. During his introduction as captain in August, Mellanby promised to fire up the Panthers by hunting prey larger than rats this season. During Florida's Stanley Cup run, the Chinese zodiac indicated that it was the Year of the Rat. According to the Chinese calendar, this is the Year of the Ox, which leads to a bold prediction: If Mellanby kills an ox with a stick in Florida's dressing room this season, the Panthers will win the Stanley Cup.