The Panthers had it pretty good during the nineties. Best first season for an expansion franchise in 1993-94, a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1995-96, a new arena opened in 1998 and an eventual Hall-of-Fame player in Pavel Bure continued to spark interest, even if only for a short time, in South Florida's hockey club.
Once the twenty-first century hit, the good times ended as the Cats generally wallowed in darkness ever since, only creeping up to the light briefly with a Southeast Division title in 2011-12.
The 1995-96 campaign has become progressively glorified in each year since, as most anyone associated with Panthers fandom is likely to claim that season as the franchise's Golden Year. It was the reason for so much that followed: the BB&T Center was built allowing the franchise to remain in South Florida, it's why plastic rodents are met with open arms, and it is the reason why many Panthers fans ARE Panthers fans. Yet a new generation of fans are now here: children of the original fans who latched onto the team in 1996 and seeking memories of their own.
The franchise has survived on a solid, dedicated base of hardcore fans, but with each season that does not end with the Stanley Cup in Sunrise, that number becomes increasingly insufficient to maintain the organization. The memories of 1996 suddenly come into question. Is it still relevant? Or is it time for the Panthers and their fans to move on from bathing in mid-nineties glory days? The Litter Box Cats staff opine about "The Year of the Rat" to find out.
What do you recall of the 1995-96 season? Were you a Panthers fan or even a hockey fan?
Francisco: I was not a hockey fan in 1995-96 nor did I even like sports back then. I was only eight years old growing up in West Palm Beach and my Hispanic immigrant family had no idea what hockey was about for the most part. I did not start to notice hockey until I became a sports fanatic and even then it was not until 2011 that I became a Panthers fan.
Shane: As weird as this may sound, I wasn't even born during the 95-96 season. My mom attended a couple of the playoff games when she was pregnant with me, so I technically was "there", but I really have no memory of it whatsoever. As crazy as it may sound, though, I feel as though that sparked my initial interest in hockey. My mom had to stop going to the playoff games because she felt like she was about to go into labor; not good, especially since I wasn't due until September. I also had an article written in the paper about me, in place of a birth announcement, because I sat with my dad and watched a hockey game. I was at the hospital at the time, and a game was on, and my dad had found that I liked watching the screen (and he wanted peace and it made me stop making noise so it was a win-win, really). As we were sitting there, a reporter for the Sun-Sentinel happened to see me, and ended up publishing a story about me. Huizenga read the article in the paper, and left the PR people in the organization at the time the article and a post it note saying "Find these people!". They tracked us down, and sent us a gift basket. It had everything; a jersey, Christmas ornaments, a Stanley C. teddy bear, etc... My parents ended up having season tickets through the Bure era, because they had been drawn in by that gift basket. (My mom also grew up in Philly during the Broadstreet Boys era, so she really ended up being drawn BACK into the sport.) So I technically have no memory of the 95-96 season, but it truly sparked my interest in hockey, and was a time when ownership cared about the community that the team was a part of. Doesn't get much better than that, really.
JC: I was in graduate school in Milwaukee at that time, and a rabid hockey fan (as I had been since my youth in Philadelphia and Washington). I was not a Panther fan at the time. I had moved from Connecticut and was a big Whalers fan (they did not move to Carolina until 1997). I recall thinking, "Florida and Colorado? Who cares about the Panthers and 'Lanche?" I had little interest in that series at that time. By the summer of '97 I was in Miami and catching the fever.
Donny: Being back in the Greater Hartford area at the time, my focus was on what ultimately became the second-to-last Whalers season, but when another Pucky-less playoffs got underway I was firmly committed to Florida for the time being. Certainly well aware of the rat-flinging madness which had gripped fans since late fall, and I already had a deep affinity for the Panthers, having been in the region for the inaugural season, gone to the first-ever home game and several others (should be noted that I followed the Lightning as a fan the year prior, right up until Huizenga gifted us a team). The Whale had my heart, but Stanley C. Panther was clawing his way up. Any case, I watched every Florida postseason game during the run, but ended up missing the Uwe Krupp series-capper by a stroke of somewhat bad (or was it good?) luck.
Todd: I've literally been a Panthers fan since day one, so yeah, I was rooting for the club big-time back then and it was great to see the community embrace them (and hockey) as they made the Cinderella run to the Finals. The first two seasons were a lot of fun to watch too, as the team was pretty feisty and damn competitive for an expansion team. Year three was the quick culmination of what they had been building those first two seasons.
John: In 1995-96, I was still living in a small town in upstate New York. I was spending most of my time outside work playing guitar in a band, and taking college night classes. We practiced five nights a week unless we were playing a gig, and I had class on one of the two remaining nights. I wasn't much of a sports fan at the time.
What is best about remembering the 1996 season?
Francisco: I am very big on celebrating and learning from history, as it is what I studied in college, so the significance of the 1996 season is not lost on me. Like any sports franchise it is good to celebrate your highest achievements and the people who made those events happen. I am all for looking back and seeing how far things have come but...
Shane: Remembering what it was like. That showed that there was hope for a Sunbelt team. This area will support a winner. People have to remember that.
JC: It was the proudest moment this franchise has ever had and in a fashion somewhat like the 1980 USA Olympic team, they did it in surprising fashion with unheralded players and a great goalie. That team was one of the ultimate grinder success stories and must be held out as an example of what can be accomplished via hard work and passion.
Donny: In retrospect, I'll take the easy way into this and say the rats followed by the playoff run. It's entirely possible the Panthers would not have witnessed the same type of attention - local or otherwise - during the postseason if not for the rodents. My perspective is that of someone who watched from afar, with only ESPN and The Hockey News as information outlets. Believe me when I say the rats were a continental rage in every hockey town not named Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Denver.
Todd: I have to agree with Donny on the rats. It may sound a bit simple but I think the rats did bring lots of extra media attention, which was awesome. For me, I've been into hockey since the mid 70's, was playing loads of inline hockey at the time, and a lot of my friends were also playing and following the team, so it was just a really fun time to be into the Panthers. The playoffs were amazing, getting together with my friends and watching them pull upset after upset was something I'll never forget. Unfortunately, while I still have some friends that are into hockey they have lost interest in the Panthers so that sense of "our team" is gone now (among my peeps) come playoff time, so '96 definitely sticks out as being very different for me when it comes to being a hockey fan in South Florida. Oh yeah, and I was in the building when Bill Lindsay scored "the goal" against the Bruins. That was something else.
John: What Shane said. That team showed that South Florida will get behind a winner. That's the general rule with sunbelt teams. Tampa Bay has only won once, but they have been competitive most years, and the fan base has stayed with them. At the same time, very few teams can hold a fan base when they are consistently mediocre or all-out terrible (see the pre-lockout Penguins and post-Hasek Sabres).
Does the 1996 season's legacy hurt the franchise in any way?
Francisco: The 1996 season remembrance has to tone down at this point as it is hurting the franchise. The Florida Panthers are no longer the surprise upstarts with the cool Cat logo and the ragtag group of lovable castoffs. Eighteen years with only three postseason appearances have turned the Panthers into an embarrassment. The leaping cat logo is no longer a symbol of fear, nor is it even considered a cool looking logo for the uninitiated. The team has had little to no players with which people in hockey, let alone South Florida, can identify with or that opposing fans wish were on their teams. And many Panthers fans wish the team would just do things the way they did in 1996. Sorry to say it to those fans, but that season was a fluke and they lost. "Lost" is the keyword there as it is the only word most people associate with anything having to do with the Panthers. Anything short of the Stanley Cup is failure. No more Little League pat on the backs.
Shane: I don't have a strong opinion, but I understand Francisco's argument. Like I said before, I'm really too young to even remember the legacy, though I have a positive attitude feeling towards it.
JC: I completely disagree. There is no harm in the remembrance of that season. It is a remembrance of making a lot out of a little, of what can be done in a non-traditional market, and through excellent scouting. Too many players have come through these halls and dishonored what was one of the hardest working teams in the league. More importantly, too many management figures have done the same. It should be held up as what can and should be accomplished here.
Donny: Don't view it as damaging in any way, but I see what the question is getting at: has the memory of '96 - as a franchise milestone - been "played out"? Yeah, a bit, but I think I understand both sides of the issue. Clinging to an unlikely conference championship almost 20 years ago on the back of supreme management by Bill Torrey is one side. The other admittedly smaller bunch wants to move forward. If nothing else keep the rat-tossing tradition, which is every bit the icon we tout it to be.
Todd: I don't think so. The problem is simply that the team has been done so little since then. The goal should be getting back to being a team that can achieve that and more. I get where Francisco is coming from, because it does get annoying sometimes when certain fans get stuck in the past. That happens in a lot of cases, with different teams in different cities, but with this one it's actually somewhat justified.
John: I think it's overstated at times. I have gone on record multiple times saying that the idea of retiring numbers based on performance in one winning season is ridiculous, but there is a pretty large crowd of people who want to see some of those players' numbers retired. The Avalanche aside, teams generally retire a number for players who played all or most of their career for the team, or are associated with the team in most (NHL) fans' minds. The idea of retiring the number of someone like John Vanbiesbrouck, who was picked in an expansion draft, was great in one playoff and then bolted the Flyers as soon as his contract was up, is ludicrous. It's in situations like that where I think that the 1996 fever can be dialed back a bit.
Do you believe Panthers fans & the franchise should move on from the 1996 season?
Francisco: Indeed I do. I think almost everything from that time period needs to go including the logo and current color scheme. Panthers fans may counter with the logo not being at fault for the team being the doormat of the NHL but it does not help that the hockey world sees it and thinks "losers". When the recent ownership regimes in Tampa Bay and Dallas took over one of the first things they did was change their look. The Lightning changed from a logo and color scheme that was synonymous with their post-Cup winning downfall. The Stars changed to a look that no longer had remnants of their final days in Minnesota. Those owners in Tampa and Dallas were not afraid to get down and dirty to fix the problems they inherited. Their new look symbolized the start of something new and that better days are here. If two Sunbelt franchises with Stanley Cup championships can get away from the days of their old success by changing and creating NEW success than surely the team that LOST in 1996 and has shown nothing since can do so too.
Shane: I'm going to have to disagree with Francisco here. Why give in? It makes little sense to just accept what the rest of the NHL is saying. I say that you form your own opinion. Don't don the jersey thinking "They say this team is full of losers, so I am now a loser." What type of thought process is that??? I say that you should be proud to wear that jersey. Yes, we have BEEN a bad team. Yes, management has BEEN (and still might be) atrocious. But players won't change thought process because of a jersey switch. They won't automatically think "Hey look, the Panthers have a new look now, they might be good!". Free agents still won't want to come here. A new logo won't change the fact that the team has been bad. Changing the look of a team is a marketing scam; people scamper to buy updated jerseys and hats that have the new logo versus the old logo. You want the perception of a team to change? Build a winner. Build a team, through drafting, and shrewd signings, and show the league that Florida can win. Changing a jersey doesn't mean a team's "culture" will change. The team winning will do that.
JC: Embrace that memory and create an expectation that this team can return to it, and to packed arenas of earnest fans.
Todd: Well, since the organization has changed so much over the years, I think they have moved on from it. Actual fans of the team should remember it fondly, and for the casual spots fan who dismisses the club as not being good since '96, I'd say give the Panthers another try and let's try to push the club towards bigger and better things in our own small way.
Donny: Pretty well answered this above, but I'll take another stab at it: does the team need a new identity in a visual sense? Absolutely, but in a limited fashion. I've said for years that a rat-styled shoulder patch should be implemented asap. Cool with the existing logo remaining.
John: I think fans should hold on to whatever they want to hold on to. It's not for me or the team or anyone else to tell people that it's wrong to hold on to whatever memories they want. The team can and should, however, be doing its part to give fans something else worth remembering.
What, if anything, should remain from 1996?
Francisco: My suggestion is to keep the color red and the tradition of throwing rats. Even then I would like for them to change the shade of red to something more distinct so they can separate themselves from the other dozen teams that wear red. All the rest can stay in the Den of Honor as a memento of days gone by.
Shane: Logo, color scheme, etc. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
JC: Rats, memories, idols, attitude, colors, family. The memory of Roger Neilson riding his bike to the practice facility and the players living among each other as a unit. I read a story recently of how the L.A. Kings players almost all live within a few miles of each other during the season and get together constantly. The memory of Roger, for sure.
Todd: Basically everything. It was the best this franchise has produced, so it's something to be very proud of. Even if they did end up losing to Colorado, it was still a magical run. Sometimes you win for losing. If some fans want to live in the past, that's their prerogative. I'd like to see management hold that kind of achievement up as what the expectation should be year to year in the effort department. Like Francisco, I'm not big on how the Panthers look (never have been) so I'm all for a uniform and logo change, but if it's ever done, it should be done simply to make the team look better, not to get away from the '96 season. The main thing that will move this franchise and its fans on from '96 is to start putting a consistent playoff team on the ice. Once the tide starts turning, then changing the look of the team could be done as an icing on the cake type of thing, if ownership sees that a change is even needed at all. Doing it now, while the team is still widely perceived as the same old sad-sack loser, would just seem like gimmicky turd polishing to the rest of the hockey world. As for Dallas making a change to get away from their Minnesota roots, I disagree. Adding green (albeit a different shade) back to the uniforms actually was a big nod to their early heritage, while also saying, this team has new ownership and we're taking things in a new direction.
Donny: From '96? Concession prices. As that isn't likely to happen I don't find any particular need or desire, personally, to continue revisiting that era. Bill Torrey remains in the organization, as do Brian Skrudland & Bill Lindsay (and possibly whatever may become of Ed Jovanovski down the road), so it's not as if the memories don't live on in management and broadcasting. Really like to see the old Miami Arena "weatherboard" thing - which displayed the current weather in the opposing team's city, and it typically wasn't pretty. Always found that to be a trivial but cute jab at the visiting club.
John: I'm all for bringing back the weatherboard. The team did that my first few seasons as a season ticket holder (2007-2010 or so) and I missed it when they stopped a few years ago. As for changing anything, I care most about changing the losing attitude of the team from the last bunch of years. I think that management has done a good job starting to change the culture, but it needs to finish the job. I think that building a winner is more important than anything else. If they have to tweak the uniform or play up 1996 to get people in the building, then they have to do what they have to do to make money. That doesn't bother me at all. I don't mind the ads when they're not obnoxious. Running a sports team is expensive and sponsors help pay the bills.
Final statement on the '96 season?
Francisco: It is the most important season in the franchise's history and it does deserve to be remembered as that. However, eighteen years have passed and the franchise has got to move on. They need to change and to get away from the familiar and the hardcore fans need to understand that it is over and they lost. Time for the new fans both young and old to have their own good memories and a new symbol to associate with those memories. And who knows, maybe those Cats fans that wish for the days of 1996 to come back will like the year two-thousand-and-something even better.
Shane: Moving on from it doesn't start with changing a logo. It starts with building a winner. Ownership needs to focus its time on making a competitive hockey team, not messing with the colors and logo.
JC: Make it more a part of this team. They must know what was done. I despise Notre Dame, but they have not won anything big in a long time, yet the past is omnipresent in the locker room, on the way to the field, in the stadium. Our players need to feel that.
Donny: It will forever be in our memory - as it rightfully should - but I'm beyond ready for a new era to celebrate.
Todd: '96 was a great time and should be remembered fondly, but it's time for the team to start making strides towards bettering that. The goal of any sports organization should be winning championships. The atmosphere that has been around this club for years now, needs to change.
John: An important thing to remember about the 1996 season is that it was such a short time after the franchise started. It was quite an accomplishment building a team that made the Cup final in its third year. That's a pretty big deal and is not something that should be lightly tossed aside.
Note: check out LBC's pre-Draft Roundtable right here.