CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — As Thursday morning’s informal skate by Florida Panthers players concluded, free agent Alexei Kovalev stepped off the ice to give his stick to a female fan in a wheelchair.
It was a nice gesture that rewarded one Panthers fan for returning to support her favorite team immediately after the NHL lockout.
“I was disappointed in the lockout, even mad at times, but I love the game and players too much to not give them a second chance,” said the fan, Jen Babicz, who also had her jersey signed by right wing Kris Versteeg.
“I believe the players’ and owners’ apologies. It’s time for the game to continue to grow. Just happy to have hockey back.”
But what will it take to re-engage the many fans who remain angry that more than three months of the NHL season have been lost?
“I can’t speak for them, I know we have a lot of work to do,” Panthers executive vice president/general manager Dale Tallon said. “We can only focus on what our jobs are. Our task at hand is to put the best possible team on the ice, win some games and play hard — and that’s what we’re going to do.”
“It may take a little while but certainly with the quality of people we have, that makes a difference,” Florida coach Kevin Dineen said. “And at the end, it’s what you see on the ice. I feel we play an entertaining game and I think we’re an easy team to like. I think our fans really connected with us last year and I’m hoping that helps us re-establish a relationship.”
Tallon and Dineen watched as approximately 12 players skated at the team’s training facility. The workouts will be informal until the NHL Players Association ratifies the labor agreement with the league. That’s expected Saturday with camp officially opening Sunday.
Teams will play no preseason games before an intense 48-game in-conference schedule begins Jan. 19.
“Everyone’s starting at the same time, there are no excuses — we have to be ready,” forward Shawn Matthias said. “It’s going to show pretty quickly who did the work while we were off. If you took any weeks off, or thought it was a good time to slack, it’s going to show in the 48 games.”
That’s not to say players who remained in playing shape simply will pick up where they left off.
“They’ll be some pretty sloppy playoff hockey right at the start of the season,” Versteeg said, “because it’s going to be battling for points all the way in.”
Dineen played for the Philadelphia Flyers when the 1994-95 lockout ended on Jan. 11 and resulted in a similarly condensed schedule. He said as a coach, he’ll use a few things learned during that experience.
“First, to be cautious and respectful that we’re going to be asking a lot of these guys in a shortened period,” Dineen said. “(Then) to know every game is going to be a playoff-type atmosphere. Things are going to happen fast and furious.”
The Panthers are coming off a season in which they captured their first division title in franchise history. Their playoff run ended in a double-overtime Game 7 during a first-round series against the New Jersey Devils.
Florida should contend again for the Southeast Division crown. It will get very familiar with division rivals, playing Carolina, Tampa Bay, Washington and Winnipeg four or five times apiece.
Veterans Kovalev, Andrei Kostitsyn and Marek Svatos have been invited to camp in hopes of giving the Panthers some desired goal-scoring ability.
Once the puck drops, the Panthers certainly could use the fan support enjoyed during the last postseason.
“You say you’re sorry,” Matthias said, “and the way you show you’re sorry is by going on the ice every night, and putting 150 percent effort into every shift and showing them that you care, and care about this team and this city.”