26 years. Sixteen trainers. Ten general managers including Dale Tallon twice and a set of brothers, Bryan and Terry Murray.
There were five owners, not counting the group of eight investors briefly led by beloved Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar, who said hockey was his “first and special love” before disappearing into Alan Cohen’s larger portfolio.
Cohen disappeared after four indifferent seasons, telling people he liked investing in horses more than hockey players because “they don’t respond.”
Cliff Viner bought the team. Lasting memory of him was a quick divorce in Key West, where his ex-wife’s relinquishment of any rights to the Panthers was a story so talked about that the Panthers released a statement about it all.
Viner divorced the Panthers three years later.
Does that help at all? Does this begin to explain why Friday matters? Talk about the long, tortured treadmill the Panthers skated on for over a quarter of a century?
At 10:43 pm on Friday night, Carter Verhaeghe was in the cavalry again, scoring in overtime as the Panthers beat Washington 4-3. That meant the Panthers won a playoff series. This is not a typo. They really won a series. A ghost puffed.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s amazing,” said Aleksander Barkov, who is in his ninth season with the Panthers.
Dolphins fans regret not winning a playoff game since 2000. The Marlins haven’t won since 2003. That’s childish compared to the Panthers and their 26 years between playoff advances.
Here’s a story: Pavel Bure led the league with 58 goals in 1999-2000, and was a substitute in a playoff series where the Panthers were swept by New Jersey. Bank.
“Don’t ask me why,” he said then.
Here’s another story: Jaromir Jagr, who was kicked out of the Eastern Conference Finals in 1996 by pesky panthers like Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Lindsay, joined the Panthers two decades later. I once asked him about this series. He asked me something back.
“Is it true that they haven’t gained anything since then?” he said
We could go on with these stories. Is at. Mike Keenan, as general manager, fired his coach, Duane Sutter, just 26 games into the 2001 season, put himself behind the bench, and later agreed to a new contract with the only player this franchise needed: Roberto Luongo. Keenan then traded Luongo before the contract was signed.
Luongo was traded back to the Panthers seven years later, part of a build roster that made it to the playoffs in 2016. All the internal wiring was then dismantled in a way only the Panthers could do.
Veteran head coach Gerard Gallant was fired after an away game in Carolina and left on his own, so he had to wait for a taxi to leave the arena. A coach who had no NHL experience, Tom Rowe, was tasked with managing the front office and coaching the team.
The expected happened. The Panthers happened. Disaster happened again. And again, they allowed people to stop paying attention.
Confession: Just writing this makes my blood boil a little, remembering stories I filed away a long time ago. The Panthers had great hockey men like Bill Torrey providing guidance and sustenance – if they wanted it – until he died in 2018.
“I’m not sure anyone is listening to what I say,” he told me once, after one of those lost years. They all blend in now.
All of which explains why you had to be happy watching the Friday celebration. And you know who deserves to be happier? The lifers within that franchise. I see doormen who have always been there, staff support staff who smile in recognition as they pass through the hallways.
Randy Moller has been working there for decades, a good and fun announcer who laughs that his last year playing was 1994-95 – the year before they went to the Stanley Cup Finals. His broadcast partner, Steve Goldstein, shouted his trademark, “Let’s go home, baby!” after Verhaeghe’s winning goal on Friday.
He reminded me the other day that after he said that one night I mentioned that it would be a good signature line for him. He then adopted him as such. Now he has closed the winner of a series with him.
Ed Jovanovski, a newcomer to the 1996 magic, is now an announcer for the team, delivering a history lesson on Friday as he showcases highlights from that long season. It’s hard to explain to people what it was like in 1996, when hockey took over South Florida — or the passion in 1997, when, say, general manager Bryan Murray replaced center Stu Barnes.
South Florida was angry. Did he switch Barnes? Why was he breaking up that team? People cared then. Maybe Friday night was finally a step back towards that.
“There’s been a lot of talk about not winning, getting knocked out in the first round,” Barkov said. “I was there… It’s not there anymore.”
For the first time in 26 empty years, there was something tangible to hold on to. Jonathan Huberdeau, a Panther for 10 years, was able to casually say what no Panther player has said at this time of year, which has been a quarter century of waiting.
“Now we have to think about the second round,” he said.