When you think of Miami, it’s unlikely your first thought is of ice and cold weather sports. But since taking the ice for the 1993 National Hockey League season, the Florida Panthers have made thousands of fans in the Miami area.
The Florida Panthers play their home games in Bank Atlantic Center, an arena that is about thirty minutes north of Miami in the Fort Lauderdale suberb of Sunrise. BankAtlantic Center, which opened in 1998, has a capacity of 19,250 for hockey games.
After H. Wayne Huizenga, who also owns the Miami Dolphins, was awarded an NHL franchise in December of 1992, the team began play in the 1993 season. Early on, the stars of the team were Rob Niedermayer, John Vanbiesbrouck and Scott Mellanby. The first win in franchise history was against fellow Florida team Tampa Bay Lightening.
Head coach Roger Neilson guided the team to a near .500 record in their initial season, however he would be fired after the team missed the playoffs in their second year of existence. The reins were handed over to Doug MacLean, which would end up being a wise move.
The Florida Panthers made the playoffs in their year as the fourth seed. In the first round, they defeated the Boston Bruins in five games. The second round saw Florida upset the Philadelphia Flyers, who had entered the playoffs as the top seed. In the conference finals, the Florida Panthers stunned the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games to advance to the Stanley Cup. Though the Colorado Avalanche went on to sweep the Panthers in the Stanley Cup, Miami had officially embraced their new hockey team.
During the 1995-96 regular season, Florida Panthers Hockey fans celebrated goals by throwing plastic rats onto the ice after goals were scored. The gimmick, known as a “rat trick”, went from a handful of plastic rats to thousands of plastic rats once the team made the Stanley Cup. However, the practice was stopped after the season due to an NHL rule change that outlawed throwing anything onto the ice after a goal (though an exemption for the standard “hat trick” was made).
Throughout the years, the Florida Panthers have had a number of star players come into town including Olli Jokinen, Viktor Kozlov and Pavel Bure. Huizenga sold the team to Alan Cohen in 2001. In 2009, Stu Siegel and Cliff Viner became the new owners. Despite the ownership changes, Panthers Hockey fans in and around Miami have continued to support their red, indigo and yellow clad hockey heroes.