If you're anything like me, and the odds say that at least some of you are, then you grew up in a land of football. Professional, collegiate, and prep level. The entire state of Florida did not have a single professional sport franchise outside of the NFL until 1988. What's hard to believe is we then welcomed seven (that's SEVEN) expansion teams from across the sporting world over the next ten years. Starting with the Miami Heat (1988), then the Orlando Magic (1989), the Tampa Bay Lightning (1992), the Florida Marlins (1993), and your favorite team and mine, the Florida Panthers in 1993. They were followed soon after by the Jacksonville Jaguars (1995) and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (1998).
The Panthers are currently on the lower end of the NHL's spectrum in terms of attendance. Josh Cooper of Yahoo Sports wrote a pretty good piece on it yesterday. There's really not a big mystery why, either. It's the circle of life really, call it Social Darwinism. Success predates high attendance. Oh, sure. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers have been below-average teams for more than just a few years now, but they don't have a problem drawing fans. And even though we can honestly say that for Edmonton at least, it's the only game in town, the Maple Leafs have a lot of other franchises to contend with.This is where history counts. It's tradition and geography. The Panthers have neither tradition nor geography, so it's always been a bit of an uphill push.
Lacking those two cornerstones of a successful NHL franchise, the Panthers have been forced to build from the ground up in a completely different way. Very quickly, the team achieved success to such a great degree in such a short time that we as newly minted NHL fans were blind to the struggles of a conventional expansion team. Getting to the Stanley Cup Finals in just their third season kind of spoiled some people into expecting that sort of success every year. Those expectations and the following letdown led to a slow, plodding exodus of fans, like rats from a sinking ship (yeah, I meant that in two ways). Fair-weather? Maybe. Bandwagoners? Undoubtedly. Understandable? Completely.
So the answer should be simple, right? I mean - "Win Early And Often." How hard could it be?
The "purists," or, hockey fans who consider their game geographically sacred, think that there should not be NHL teams in places that snow will not fall. These elitists would prevent you from having a team. Indeed, you, Dallas fans, most California fans, Coyote fans - anyone who doesn't fall below a certain latitude would be excluded from following a team in their hometown. I was speaking to a self stated "die-hard Detroit Red Wings fan" today (It's hard to be tested when your team has been to the playoffs every single year that you've been alive, but I digress). He said that hockey shouldn't happen where it doesn't get cold. I was rendered speechless at the time, because I consider him under most circumstances to be a level-headed kind of guy. It struck home for me that there is an institutionalized prejudice against fans in the south. Not just a prejudice either, but almost a sanction.
Not only is it okay for these hockey elitists to look down on us based upon our hometown, but it's expected and actively encouraged by some. I've been to exactly one NHL hockey game in my life. It was in March just this past season - when I was lucky enough to be blessed with a press pass to cover the Panthers on behalf of Litter Box Cats from the press box. It really was a dream come true. The Cats lost the game, 3-0 to the Chicago Blackhawks - and yeah - that really sucked, but it was still one of the best nights of my life as a sports fan. I was completely blown out of the water by the relative dearth of bonified Florida Panthers fans in the house relative to the road fans. Maybe we are just quieter? Whatever it was, on my way back out to my car, the parking lot was just flooded with loud Chicago fans. Will our fans ever outnumber the opposing fans? It seems so, but it will begin in a season when we start winning "Early and Often." It looks like it could happen this year. The Panthers are winning early. Can they continue the path and win often as well - sustain it over a month - until the all-star break - all year long - through four rounds of the postseason?
Yesterday's fair weather fans are tomorrow's die-hards. Those very people who abandoned ship are the ones who expected success year-in and year-out. These are the same folks that we are going to need to get parked back in the seats. Missing the postseason in 13 of the last 14 seasons has surely taken a toll on the prospective fanbase - and the new ownership group understands that "free ticket giveaways" are anathema to building a new tradition of winning. Why should they give tickets away? Would you?
Winners don't give tickets away, and owners don't buy teams to lose money.
The hiring of Dale Tallon was the first step in repairing this franchise to a self-sustaining level. After a false start back in 2011-12 which was bolstered by a free agent signing flurry, the Panthers are finally seeing the results that they expected when they brought him on. Five years into the plan, the slow infusion of young talent has finally reached the level of consistency where results will yield a winner in Sunrise. We're starting to enjoy the fruits of this long, long gestation period - and Tallon has built a farm system with eyes on an even further future. Will the Panthers always win? Of course not. Will they make the playoffs every season forever? Of course not. Is this the year that we see the team back in the final 16?
All things are possible when it's the Cup at the end of the line. Getting a ticket punched to the dance doesn't guarantee anything. But I like the looks of this team, and you should too. It's not just a football town anymore. The NHL is here to stay.