Head north on 1-95 out of Miami, then east on Hollywood Boulevard. Before long the idea of hockey in South Florida doesn't seem so absurd.
Every winter an estimated 1½ million Canadians migrate to the Sunshine State. The mecca for Quebecois is Hollywood Beach, where newsstands earn.' du Maurier cigarettes and Le Journal de Montreal, and every other car, it seems, has Quebec license plates bearing the motto JE ME SOUVIENS. "I remember."
Jacques Demers remembers. The coach of the Montreal Canadiens remembers the good old days when an expansion team on the schedule meant a sure two points and a chance for the players to pad their scoring totals. First-year teams won maybe a dozen games all season and looked forward to the draft. Similar ignominy awaited the Florida Panthers, Demers predicted during training camp. "They'll lose 60 or 65 games," he said, "like a normal expansion team."
Four games against the Panthers—three losses and a tie—forced Demers to revise his prediction. After watching Florida embarrass his defending Stanley Cup champions 8-3 at Miami Arena on Jan. 24 and listening to the Panther fans chant "We want nine," Demers had become a believer. "They'll make the playoffs," he conceded. "And whoever plays them better be careful. The Panthers are for real."
This is no ordinary expansion team. It seems safe to say that Florida is the only NHL club with a Spanish-speaking radio announcer who casually drops bullfighting allusions into his play-by-play. And no team holds on to a lead like las Panteras: Thirty-four times this season they have scored first in a game, and they have lost only five of those contests. Employing coach Roger Neilson's infamous, yawn-inducing neutral zone trap in front of goalies John Vanbiesbrouck and Mark Fitzpatrick, the Panthers have been out of just two games all season. Through Saturday they were 20-17-10, seventh in the Eastern Conference, and on a pace for 89 points. The record for an expansion team is 73, shared by the 1967-68 Philadelphia Flyers and the 1979-80 Hartford Whalers.
The success of the Panthers is a fish bone in the craw of the second-year Tampa Bay Lightning. If the playoffs were be ginning this week, Tampa's downstate conference-mates would be in, while the Lightning would not. This nascent rivalry has yet to reach the status of, say, Calgary-Edmonton, but it might get there. Lightning general manager Phil Esposito did his part in the preseason by referring to the Panthers as pussycats.
Espo has stopped using that pejorative, and with good reason: In five tries this season his team went 0-3-2 against the upstarts. Tampa Bay's final regular-season crack at Florida came on Jan. 26 at the ThunderDome, where Vanbiesbrouck stopped 40 of 41 shots, securing a 1-1 tie for the Panthers.
After Beezer, whose .934 save percentage through Saturday led the league, it is impossible to pinpoint Florida's best player. Some nights it's right wing Scott Mellanby, the rugged former Flyer and Edmonton Oiler who has blossomed into a scorer for the Panthers. Some nights it's right wing Bob Kudelski, whom Florida acquired—some might say rescued—from the Ottawa Senators in a Jan. 6 trade and whose 30 goals make him the closest thing the Panthers have to a sniper. Some nights it's center Brian Skrudland, the tenacious former Canadien whom Neilson made his captain. All of Florida's skaters evince the scrappiness that was the hallmark of Panther general manager Bobby Clarke, though none has near the talent of the three-time NHL Most Valuable Player. Most were considered expendable by their previous teams.
The players aren't the only rejects in this story. In August 1992 the New York Islanders were sold, and the new owners made no secret of their opinion that then chairman Bill Torrey, the man who had engineered the Isles' early-1980s' dynasty, was old and in the way. Panther owner Wayne Huizenga thought differently and hired the 58-year-old Torrey last April as his club's first president. For his part, Clarke, 44, had become expensive window dressing in the front office of the Flyers, for whom he was vice-president in charge of ribbon-cuttings. "I had a position but not a job," he says. Neilson, 59, was the victim of a nasty mutiny in New York, where he was fired by the Rangers in the middle of last season. Given new life in the Sun Belt, this trio of heretofore grumpy old men has assembled the best expansion team in NHL history.
With the Heat cold, the Dolphins done and the Marlins idle, the Panthers have become the hottest ticket in town. The club has averaged 94% capacity at the 14,500-seat Miami Arena. Hired 100 days before the start of the season, vice-president of marketing Dean Jordan and his staff worked feverishly to sell 8,500 season tickets. They bought advertising in English-and Spanish-language media outlets and in papers serving the snowbird market. They even asked their counterparts with the Montreal Expos if they would stuff some Panther literature in with their season-ticket renewal forms. Thanks to Huizenga's baseball connections, it was done.