For Round One of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Sean and I booked a last minute trip to sunny South Florida. I have been a Florida Panthers fan since I was about 9 years old. I started to cheer for the Panthers because, well, they have a cat as their logo (and I love cats). Pretty ridiculous right? Well about a year or so after I declared my allegiance to the young franchise, the Cats went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996. Despite being swept in 4 games by the Avalanche, I was hooked. I was obsessed with that team all year long, and seeing them get to the Finals was all I needed to know I had picked the right team.
But that was 1996. This is 20 years later, and Panthers fans have often found themselves questioning why they bother rooting for this franchise. Since becoming a team in 1993 they’ve only made the Playoffs five times. The only time they’ve advanced past the first round was in fact, the 1996 run. It’s been heartbreak ever since. Quite often, when they weren’t making the Playoffs, they were sitting at the bottom (or near the bottom) of the standings. You might think “well surely they must have been using those losing seasons to build up a great team via the Entry Draft!” Nope. The Panthers management in the 90’s and early 00’s often traded away those valuable picks. Or they’d get unlucky with their picks, and choose the “lemon” of that year. Sometimes they would draft some good players, but the problem was, no one seemed to want to stay in South Florida for the long term.
Management groups and different owners came and went. Florida has had 13 head coaches over their 23 year span. By comparison, the Tampa Bay Lightning have only had eight in their 24 year span. Hard to build a consistent formula when you’re constantly meeting a new face. GM’s have come and gone. With each new regime came new promises of revitalizing the franchise, and finally doing things right. Each time, fans would be let down and left rooting for a team flirting with last.
Florida Panthers fans have also had to put up with endless insults, scrutiny, and being treated as outsiders in their own arena. Fans of this franchise have rarely been treated seriously, because as outlined above, the team has been pretty terrible. Hard to defend a team like that. But we have. We’ve stuck with this team, as all loyal fans do. Being a fan of a bad team is not a fun experience. Add in that once the Panthers moved from the downtown Miami Arena, to the more suburban BB&T Center, their attendance began to struggle.
The attendance woes for the Panthers have long been a source of comedy for non-Cats fans. But stop and think about it. This is a team that has been AWFUL for a long time. Would you have spent your money to go see them play? Would you travel the 30+ minute drive from Miami to go to a game? How about buying merchandise? Or why would you want to be a season ticket holder, when you can buy tickets on StubHub for a mere fraction of what you shell out? Think about it from the context of the team you love now. If they were terrible for over ten years, how encouraged would you be to spend your hard earned money? If you were just discovering hockey, would you choose them as your team?
But there is a dedicated group of Panthers fans who have stuck by this team, who have put their money where their mouth is and have continued to support this team. If you ask me, these are some of the most loyal fans in the NHL. This fan base has the capacity to get bigger. (The Panthers used to regularly sell out Miami Arena, and their attendance rose last season). South Florida is known for being a bandwagon town (just ask the Heat and the Marlins), and it’s also unique because of all the SnowBirds who fly south, but never give up allegiance to their hometown teams (the Leafs, Habs, Rangers, Penguins all come to mind) to cheer for the Cats. How many other franchises have that to contend with? (Actually, I have a theory that Las Vegas, the newest franchise, will suffer this same SnowBird issue).
Panthers fans are rarely the “home crowd” in their own building. That’s tough to put up with, night after night. It’s draining. But these fans have done it. They’ve come up with ways to get louder. Cowbells became a popular way to help create atmosphere and support. (I proudly rang mine last Spring). Stanley C. Panther and Victor E. Rat (the team’s two mascots) pound on large drums to get chants going. And the fans themselves will start the chants. The two home playoff games I went to had as much energy and fan participation I as a crowd at the Bell Centre (and the Panthers arena had only 2/3 of the crowd). It was a small crowd, but it was a mighty crowd.
The other thing about this “small” Panthers crowd is that they’re all proudly sporting their team’s colours. As I looked around the BB&T Center, everyone was wearing something related to the Panthers – be it a jersey, a t-shirt, or even the giveaway shirts. It was mind blowing. I live in a city where the vast majority of the crowd sits in the arena in their business attire. I wasn’t used to this public display of fandom. It was incredible. It’s another mark of how proud these people are of their team – not only do they spend the money on tickets, they also work hard to spend money on the apparel.
The best part about this fan base though is their hospitality. Sean & I were welcomed with open arms to the tailgating, and everything. Yes, it did help that I have an established online relationship with some of these fans; but still. They didn’t need to offer up their parking passes, discount cards, plastic rats (for tossing on the ice of course!) or invite us along to watch parties. We quickly joked with them, shared stories, took photos, and got to know one another. It was a wonderful experience. Together we share in the highs and lows of the forever underdog franchise. It’s something special to be part of this group. How many other places around the league would have such a welcoming group? (I am genuinely asking…)
These fans don’t deserve to be mocked. I know I am guilty of often making fun of the Leafs fan base, and other northern market fans, but in all fairness – it’s because I’ve endured years and years of heckling from those parties. We’ve put up with so much over the years. It gets exhausting trying to convince people that your team can have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs, and to have a great fan base. But guess what – the years of mocking, of being taunted in our own building, is really only serving to make us a stronger group. We believe in our team, and believe in each other as fans. I had the time of my life down South. It made the terrible years a distant memory. I’ve seen my team play in a Playoff hockey game. Not many people get to say that. And for me, the best part of all was that the team was only part of that experience – the fans really escalated the experience to the above and beyond. I always get asked if I’d rather be a Leafs fan so I could at least cheer for the home town team. But why would I do that, when I am already part of one of the most dedicated, passionate, and kind group of fans around?
This season, I really hope we can get to South Florida again. I can’t wait to ring my cowbell, throw some rats, and tailgate in the middle of winter. For the first time in a long while with this franchise, it truly does feel like the team itself has turned a corner and is on their way to becoming a regular contender for tops in the Division, and for making the playoffs more than once every ten years. But until the rest of the hockey world notices, I will keep trying to convince everyone that YES there are Florida Panthers fans, YES this franchise will succeed and not be a victim of relocation. I’ll keep deflecting the comments about empty seats, ticket promotions, and all the rest of it. Because I love this team, and I love these fans.