Why I’m a fan of the Florida Panthers
The Cats replaced the Oilers as my #1 in 1993
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I got my start as a big-time hockey fan back in 1977, when my family moved from Hialeah to Birmingham, Alabama.
Birmingham seems an unlikely place to start a lifelong love affair with the sport of hockey, but this was the 1970s, when the upstart WHA did battle with the established NHL for the hearts and minds of hockey fans across North America.
After two seasons of rooting for the WHA Bulls, which included attending some home games at Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, my family moved back to South Florida in time for the 1979 "merger" between the two leagues that saw stripped for parts versions of the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers join the NHL as expansion teams, while my beloved Bulls and the Cincinnati Stingers were relegated to the minor Central Hockey League, where both teams quickly gave up the ghost.
So, who to root for in this brave new, one-league world? It wouldn't, couldn't be one of the seventeen NHL teams that survived the war (RIP Cleveland Barons and abandoned markets in Kansas City and the California Bay Area). I wisely choose the Oilers, largely based on some skinny kid named Gretzky, who was the last rookie-of-the-year in the Association, but also as kind of a lark, as Edmonton was the furthest away of the four former WHA cities from where I now lived in Miramar.
The decision served me well over the years, as the Oilers quickly grew into a monster that rolled to five Stanley Cups, leaving plenty of rattled goalies dazed on the side of the highway to hockey history.
During most of the Oilers' heyday I never really thought we'd have a team in my own backyard to root for anytime soon, maybe one day... When the Miami Arena opened in 1988, my mindset on the subject began to change and the possibility become much more realistic.
After an exciting, but flawed expansion game between the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers and a failed expansion bid by John Henry (both in 1990) that saw the NHL award teams to Tampa Bay and Ottawa instead, Blockbuster magnate H. Wayne Huizenga finally succeeded in getting the area a franchise on December 10, 1992 (there were a few aborted attempts to bring the WHA to the Hollywood Sportatorium in the 70s) and the Florida Panthers were up and at it in the fall of 1993.
And that's really all it took for me to become a Florida Panthers fan, pretty simple stuff. After years of rooting for a faraway team in Western Canada, which wasn't that easy in the days before the internet, I finally had a team that I could go see in person again, instead of merely following along by watching television or by reading The Hockey News. With the Cats becoming a focal point for hockey fans in South Florida, bonds were established with other like-minded individuals. I got into playing roller hockey, which furthered my love for the sport, and even now in my slightly older days, I’m still playing, albeit in sneakers instead of inlines.
From the unveiling of the original uniform on June 15, 1993, that magical playoff run in the spring of ‘96, the joy of Pavel Bure days, through the pain of way too many missed postseasons, to the season-ending 2-0 win over the Washington Capitals on April 9, 2017, I've been along for the ride since day one and don't intend on ever exiting. Bring on the 2017-18 season!
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