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"But I didn't want to be general partner or anything like that," Huizenga says. His expansion Marlins had yet to play their first game, for heaven's sake. And Huizenga already owned 15% of the Miami Dolphins and 50% of Joe Robbie Stadium. A man can have only so many irons in the fire.
But McNall saw an opening, and the prospect of attracting big-name players like Huizenga and Eisner into the NHL was irresistible. "He said if I were serious about wanting a team in South Florida, something would probably be happening at the next owners' meeting," Huizenga recalls. "He said that Disney was in [in fact, it wasn't yet]. It all happened so quickly—five weeks—there wasn't time to put a partnership together. I was afraid if I didn't move, Miami would be sitting here in five years waiting for a hockey team. It was grab your ass and go."
Eisner, in reality, was still on the fence. At one point he even called Huizenga to ask how he figured to make a profit on a $50 million hockey team. Eisner remembers the exact moment, sometime after that call, when he decided Snow White-pure Disney would take the leap into the sometimes violent world of the NHL. He was taking a shower when—eureka!—he hit upon a way to swing the deal with a minimum of risk to Disney's stockholders. (That epiphany eventually came to light when it was announced that Ogden Entertainment Services, which manages The Pond, had agreed to put up $12.5 million of Disney's $50 million expansion fee if the hockey team began playing in the 1993-94 season.) He phoned McNall, and on Dec. 9, 1992, the NHL made the startling announcement that The Walt Disney Company and Huizenga, two of the world's most successful marketers, were joining the bumbling, backward NHL family. The princess was bending over to kiss the frog.
Trust us on this: That was one lip-lock the frog won't ever forget. "We want to break the mold," says the 55-year-old Huizenga, who can count on two hands the number of hockey games he has seen in his adult life. "I told our people, 'No traditional thinking.' We want this arena to be a happening place when the Panthers are playing, a place to see and be seen. We've got to get people here for all the wrong reasons, then turn them into hockey fans so they'll come back for the right reasons."
Here are some of the wrong reasons to go to a Panther game this season.
1) To listen to La Bamba during the warmups.
2) To follow the Panther Patrol, wandering cheerleaders in funny hats, modeled after the Marlins' Bleacher Brigade.
3) To see "dueling Zambonis" resurface the ice in three minutes, giving the Panthers more time for between-period high jinks like...puck-stacking contests. How many pucks can three randomly selected fans stack in 30 seconds?
4) To jot down the toll-free number for Save the Florida Panther, Inc. (1-800-5-FLA-CAT), advertised on the sideboards.
5) To get out of the heat.