Change in Motion: The Florida Panthers and their Future

The Florida Panthers have been the butt of NHL jokes for most of two decades. But the winds are changing with the team. Is it time for long-time fans to embrace it?

The Florida Panthers fanbase is one of the most unique I've ever seen in sports. It's about as small and close-knit a group as can be seen, which is amazing considering that the team has only made four playoff appearances since 1993 and only made it out of the first round once in franchise history. Sure it has taken a patchwork effort reminiscent of someone trying to fix an ever-crackling dam from breaking apart, but the franchise is still here. When Mr. Viola and Mr. Cifu bought the team in 2013, nobody knew what this team's fate was going to be. Not even the two men who bought the club themselves knew.
Yet once Broward County voted to support this team it suddenly gave everyone the confidence they need to finally turn this team around. What will turn this team around? Change. Lots of it. And it's been happening Cats fans. For years. And it's happening even more now and fast. With the new year comes another year of change. Let's look back at how the Panthers have changed over the years for the better.
Say what you will about Dale Tallon and how he handles signing free agents, the man knows a talented young player when he sees one. And boy has he had to do a lot of evaluating young talent over the years. The plan? Purposely tank the Florida Panthers and strip them of whatever existing talent they had in order to stockpile draft picks and grow an NHL team from the ground up. Other than a fluke 2011-12 Southeast Division championship, it has been rough sailing for Cats fans. But now the Panthers seem to have finally come into their own. Dale Tallon has earned himself three more years to do what he came up short doing after rebuilding Chicago: hoisting the Cup as an NHL GM.
The best change that could have happened to this club was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman finding these men and courting them to come save this franchise. Ownership change has a seismic impact on a sports franchise. Immediately everything in a franchise is subject to change when new ownership comes in. The Cats suddenly had a more family-like atmosphere instead of the corporate, emotionless feel that plagued the organization once Wayne Huizenga sold the team.
The change in the atmosphere around the building was evident. The Panthers team offices became more open with co-workers not blockaded by cubicles and able to communicate better with one another. They cleaned house with many in the staff from on-ice to off-ice personnel as many fans had complained of bad service and the players had been working under sub par conditions for years. Now much like in Dallas and Tampa Bay, it looks like northern transplants are saving another franchise and contributing to the health of the sport.
Change Babich
For many years the fate of the Florida Panthers hinged on the decisions of one man, Michael Yormark. Don't worry if you felt the earth shake a bit, that is normal. In any case, he was in charge of basically every decision the Panthers made, save for a few moments where ownership actually showed initiative such as the signing of Dale Tallon.
Yormark was about one thing and one thing only: maximizing the profits of Sunrise Sports and Entertainment. The Panthers and many sports franchises are usually money losers and just an anchor tenant of the building they play in. It is the ability to manage the building and host all other events that generate a ton of revenue. Hockey in Sunrise took a backseat to concerts and shows. The Florida Panthers and BB&T Center became the popup ads of the NHL as anyone, and I mean anyone, who had enough money could get ad space in Sunrise. No stone was left unturned, even the urinals. The Panthers tried every gimmick short of hosting a Disco Demolition Night to get people in the seats and it turned a lot of people off. The last straw had to be Club Red (Club Lexus today) but you can read up more on that forward thinking but poorly executed decision here.
The first sign that the stench was finally lifting? The Florida Panthers trade for Roberto Luongo's return home.
The Panthers became bottom dwellers in a strategic rebuild. It was risky. It could have killed the franchise in South Florida. But in a way it was smart, and it was done to save the franchise. No one knew it then, but Aaron Ekblad was about to become a sensation. However, it was the performance of the 2014-15 Panthers throughout Ekblad's rookie season that made it look like this rebuild may finally be coming to a close. The Edmonton Oilers have been as bad as Florida the past half decade but it is the Cats who have found a way out of the NHL basement. It doesn't just take drafting the kids and throwing them to the wolves, but raising them right.
I am a Latino, but I was raised in West Palm Beach and English is by far my first language. But nonetheless, it was apparent to me once I became a hockey fan in 2011 that the Florida Panthers had missed a grand opportunity to build a bigger fan base through marketing to Latinos. The move from Miami to Sunrise might have impacted that initially but the BB&T Center's location was made specifically to try to capture visitors from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade.
Come 2014 and the Cats experimented with 1210 ESPN Deportes to broadcast 3 games. It became enough of a hit that it was extended to 7 games in 2014-15. Come 2015-16 and every home game is being broadcast in Spanish. It's a wonderful way to reach out. For those that haven't listened to the broadcast I'll give you a breakdown. Arley Londoño, the Spanish announcer since way back in 1993, and Octavio Sequera, the host, call the game in the same way you would expect from a hockey broadcast but always with an eye towards connecting the fans to the team and teaching the game.
Throughout the broadcast Londoño and Sequera say "nuestros Panthers"(our Panthers), "el equipo de toda La Florida" (the team of all of Florida), and so on. It is refreshing to hear and I like the approach they are taking with indicating that the team is here for ALL of us. During the game and especially during intermission, the two broadcasters speak about the history of the game (especially with Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo making history every game), the rules of the game, and the goings on with the team. Both men know they are both announcers and educators and honestly I have actually chosen to put them on whenever possible.
Now the push to get Latino fans is happening and it's wonderful to see. This is what the NHL envisioned happening when the great move south occurred in the 1990s.
Remember Yormark? Of course you do after another earth shake. Well, Peter Luukko is the type of executive that could make a lemonade stand into a booming success on a national scale. Luukko was formerly in the Philadelphia Flyers organization and moved up the ranks to become both the team president and the COO and President of Comcast Spectacor. Luukko has been in the arena management game for a long time and he knows how to promote a team. The Cats now have a guest chef program that brings in Tri-County area chefs to the club levels for the night. The in-game presentation isn't just one long commercial break or at least it no longer feels like one.
Likely a stroke of brilliance was the "Goal of a Lifetime" competition in 2014-15 that occurred after the freak Leafs-Cats game where both Panthers goalies suffered injuries. The Panthers decided to hold a contest to allow goalies from all over the world to come try out for the team to spend a day as a practice goalie. The contest became a sensation garnering the attention of ESPN. When was the last time ESPN seemed genuinely interested in hockey, let alone the Florida Panthers? I had to think Mr. Luukko had a part in that and the current marketing efforts the team is doing.
When you think of professional sports franchises in the modern age you think of all the amenities the players are offered. The best hotels, the best food, and there’s always someone in charge of handling the player’s things so they do not have to worry about it. Well now the Florida Panthers do not have to worry about waiting for flights either due to ownership providing the Cats with a team plane. The Panthers may play in the Eastern Conference but due to their location as the southernmost team in the NHL they travel like a Western Conference team. A team plane that is at the beck and call of the club is important to get guys in and out of cities quickly and back home to get needed rest.
Many people will poo poo on this deal as more sports welfare, and the Canadian talking heads will see it as another sign for moving a team to the Northwest Territories. But the $86 million from the tourism tax is absolutely vital for the Florida Panthers to have a safety net in order to support the team on the ice. That support on the ice will translate to wins on a consistent basis which will translate to buzz locally. The Panthers are playing in the midst of a toss-up Miami Heat squad, and terrible Miami Dolphins, Miami Hurricanes football, and Miami Marlins baseball. South Florida needs a winner. Now is the time for the Cats to rise.
The minute that Mr. Viola and Mr. Cifu bought the club at the state that it was at, it was almost like a brand new expansion franchise. As much as Florida Panthers fans love everything about their team, especially those here since the beginning, the rest of South Florida has forgotten about the team after year after year of inept ownership, uncaring management, and mediocre hockey. It looks like Mr. Viola and Mr. Cifu are looking to erase that. The Cats will be in new threads continuing a trend among almost all of the Sunbelt NHL squads especially when bringing in new ownership. I’m pretty confident the team will make sure the new logo of the franchise will make up for the unfortunate stigma the original carried after 2000.
2016 is here everyone. Now the boys on the ice have the tools to make a change in the standings and with that a change in the attendance. It's been great watching it all happen. From 2001 through 2009 the change destroyed the Panthers franchise but now the change is positive and exciting.
What changes have you been most happy about? Or was there a change I forgot? Please comment down below and a Happy 2016 to everyone!