I remember the first time I ever felt complete sadness and heartbreak when a sports team that I love lost.
It was Game 7 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Panthers and the New Jersey Devils. At the time I was in the midst of writing a massive paper for my Master's program and was catching every second of Game 7. I remember the despair of the Devils pushing a lead into the final minutes of regulation. I jumped, ran and screamed through the house when Marcel Goc tied the game with less than 4 minutes left. I was the most bi-polar person with every movement of the puck during the ensuing overtimes.
And then it was over. Adam Henrique scored past Jose Theodore and like that the season was over. It was my first season as a Panthers fan. I came late to the game compared to most of the readers of this site. The season I experienced was an anomaly. The die-hards, those that have been here since the rat-infested Miami Arena days, were like people who had been crossing a desert and finally found some water. But what I quickly came to realize was that the 2011-12 season wasn't an oasis, it was a mirage. The Panthers of that season were a flash in the pan and I soon realized that to be a Panthers fan, you had to suffer. And suffer I did.
The one thing that I had always tried to tell myself was that the Panthers would rise. That Dale Tallon's vision would come to fruition. That somehow that bright future that every NHL pundit said would come, would come.
And now it just might finally be here. Back in January I wrote about change and the opportunity of embracing it for the die-hards. It looks like the Panthers have finally grown up. The Panthers have finally taken the small step, and are ready for the giant leap.
On April 5, 2016, the Florida Panthers captured the 2015-16 NHL Atlantic Division title. The Panthers overcame an insurmountable set of odds to earn that title. When it happened I called my dad. My dad has known how much love I have for this team. He knows how lucky I have felt to even cover this team and how grateful I am that I can do even something like create LBC's logo. After I rambled on and on about my excitement and how happy I was his response was "congratulations."
My father said "congratulations" with a tone that I, myself, had earned something that night as well. And I feel happy about that but I know there are so many more people who deserve congratulations all the more than myself.
Congratulations to the Florida Panthers players. To guys like Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Aleksander Barkov who were thrust into the limelight with the high expectations of shouldering this team to glory. To guys like Roberto Luongo, Jaromir Jagr, Brian Campbell, and Willie Mitchell who took a chance on wanting to turn what was a former NHL wasteland into an NHL paradise. To guys like Vincent Trocheck, Quinton Howden, and Garrett Wilson who had to earn their stripes down in the minors.
Congratulations to Gerard Gallant and his staff. Being a coach in any sport comes with the credit when the team succeeds and the blame when a team fails. But coach Gallant and his demeanor throughout the season through the highest of highs and lowest of lows kept this team from having the wheels fall off. While many fans were pressing the panic button some nights, and planning the parade on other nights, Gallant and his staff kept the Panthers on an even keel.
Congratulations to Dale Tallon and his assistants for making sure to see his vision through to the end. It takes a lot of will and commitment to say to a struggling market that they will have to suffer MORE in order to stop the pain.
Congratulations to the Florida Panthers broadcast crews. Steve Goldstein, Denis Potvin, and Randy Moller have seen a lot of losing but they gave fans something to enjoy from their witty banter and humor and kept fans coming back every night for more. To Doug Plagens and Alex Donno for giving fans like me, who have been away from the arena and the television, the fine ear-candy. To Arley Londono and Octavio Sequera for taking up the task of educating a budding Latino hockey fan base.
Congratulations to the Florida Panthers organization outside of the limelight. From the equipment crew and training staff, to the marketers, game presentation staff, sales office, and higher execs like Peter Luukko, and anyone else I may be missing for putting love and passion into a team that sorely needed it. If any of you follow anyone working in the organization on Twitter you'll see just how much they are dedicated and how much they love this team.
Congratulations to Vincent Viola and Douglas Cifu for answering the call of Gary Bettman and taking up the mantra of being stewards of the Florida Panthers and not just being the owners. These two men wanted to create a positive, professional, family-like culture in Sunrise, FL. And they have succeeded, and now the rest of the hockey world knows it.
Congratulations to all the fans for taking more insults, more hate, more embarrassment than most sports fans ever face in any sport. To all the people who take time to analyze every stat from the most basic to the most advanced. To every blogger (especially every writer I have known on LBC) who goes out of their way in their free time to post an article, podcast, or video about every move the team makes. To all the fans who sat through the holiday homestands filled with rambunctious and condescending snowbirds and who were still willing to go back the next night with cowbell and rats in tow. Congratulations to the older Panthers fans who saw every player from Alex Auld to John Vanbiesbrouck. Congratulations to the younger Panthers fans who have bought their first ever season tickets and whose first player jersey is Aaron Ekblad.
I think it takes a lot of love to love the Florida Panthers. Luckily the Florida Panthers and their fans have love in spades.
Now let's go get a Cup!