Tropical hockey? Panthers prove it works 20 years later

SUNRISE, Fla. — Bill Torrey was finished with hockey.

The long-time New York Islanders general manager had recently retired to South Florida with the purpose of taking up golf.

He received an invitation from business mogul H. Wayne Huizenga to attend a Miami Dolphins game. The meeting at Joe Robbie Stadium turned into a problem-solving session long after the final whistle: how could one make NHL hockey work in South Florida?

“Mr. H, that’s a tall order,” Torrey said to Huizenga at the time. “Hockey, I believe you can sell anywhere. But I think particularly here, it might work.”

Twenty years later, Torrey stood in the bowels of the BB&T Center, reminiscing about the Florida Panthers’ early days. Like a proud father, he basked in stories of how the team’s name came to be, the design of the team’s logo, the trick to getting ice not to melt in the South Florida heat.

Hockey in South Florida? Many tried and failed.

Torrey always believed.

In 1938, promoters at the Metropolitan Ice Palace in Miami formed the Tropical Professional Hockey League. Comprised of four Canadian teams with tropical-sounding veneers, games were  played three times a week before snowbirds escaping the grip of winter. The league did not last beyond its inaugural season.

There were attempts by the American Hockey League to form a team in Dania Beach in the early 1970s. The Florida Buccaneers, who had a tentative agreement to be the Buffalo Sabres’ affiliate, offered to subsidize opponents’ travel. But northern teams were not sold on ice hockey in South Florida and vetoed expansion.

The World Hockey Association’s Screaming Eagles signed big-name talent Bernie Parent and Derek Sanderson before they had a place to nest in 1971. The arena, to be built near Doral Country Club, only had two of its four walls ready to go when the team flew the coop for Philadelphia.

The WHA attempted to relocate the Cleveland Crusaders to play in the region in 1976. And there were the Florida Ice Gators, who almost called the now-razed Hollywood Sportatorium home in 1977. Both deals melted.

Leagues that never made it off the ground, including the Global Hockey League and North American Hockey League, sought to put a franchise in the Miami Arena in the 1990s. Even when the NHL announced it would expand by two for the 1992-93 season, two separate, competing bids to land a franchise failed.

Miami Arena hosted two preseason games in 1992, and the South Florida humidity turned ice into slush.

Torrey had every reason to think the odds were against him.

The trick to making hockey work? A seasonal change in demographics and, well, dehumidifiers.

Torrey projected a team could survive with 7,000 to 8,000 season ticket holders, with game day walk-ups filling the void. And when the snowbirds arrive from Canada, Minnesota, the Northeast, Torrey knew they would flock to see competitive hockey.

“If the good teams come here, and there’s a good, competitive game, people come,” he said.

As for the ice, the Panthers quickly learned removing moisture from the atmosphere created the hard surface needed for ice hockey. Huizenga immediately invested in two dehumidifiers for the Miami Arena.

“They were the two biggest we could find in the country to put in there,” Torrey said. “And when we went to the Finals, against Colorado, we had much better ice than they had in Denver.”

Not only did the Panthers make ice better than the Avalanche, they did so in the heat of June.

After that improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996, the Panthers faced the threat of relocation to Nashville in just their fourth year of existence due to financial reasons. The team, stuck in a lease which limited its revenue, needed a new arena. Both Dade and Broward County fought to keep the Cats, the first franchise to take the South Florida community on a championship run since the 1984 Miami Dolphins.

Broward County and the City of Sunrise provided a home for the Panthers, a plot of land and building overlooking the Florida Everglades where their namesake species actually roams.

But even with a new home, the team has gone through its share of struggles.

The Panthers have little to cling to as far as an illustrious history. They are the only franchise in South Florida to have not won a championship. Florida went 10 years without making the postseason. Casual fans are more apt to know about team’s tradition of throwing rats on the ice than name one of the five Hall of Fame players who have skated for the franchise. Canadian pundits call for the team’s relocation at least once a season.

But the effects of the Panthers’ presence are residual. More rinks exist in the area than 20 years ago. Hockey programs — both ice and roller — have sprouted all over the region. Youth teams from South Florida have competed in and won national and international tournaments. And as Torrey points out, six players from the Sunshine State were selected in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

“We have not been a good team for the last six years, compared to what we were before,” Torrey said. “And yet we still draw.”

As they did Friday night. 

In a throwback to their inaugural home opener, Florida hosted the unbeaten Pittsburgh Penguins and triumphed, 6-3, before a sellout crowd of 18,543.

Prior to the game, the 2013-14 Panthers were introduced alongside children wearing the jerseys of players from the inaugural game lineup. Throughout the contest, former players offered their congratulations and best wishes on the team’s new scoreboard regarding the 20th anniversary.

“It was great to see all the names of a few guys I played with and against, and a few players I didn’t really like out there that were coming out on the introductions,” said coach Kevin Dineen, who played for Philadelphia during Florida’s first season. “It puts a little perspective on it. There are people who say ‘I was there when the team was down in Miami,’ ‘I’ve been following them for a long time.’ Those are great conversations to have. You enjoy when people are along for the ride.”

But at the heart of Friday’s victory were players who are as young as the franchise itself. Erik Gudbranson, who was a little more than 18 months old when the NHL granted South Florida a franchise, logged nearly 20 minutes of ice time. Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau — a mere 10 days old when the Panthers were born — contributed a goal.

And rookie Aleksander Barkov, who finished with the eventual game-winner and two assists? He’s only known of an NHL in which the Florida Panthers exist.

Convincing people ice hockey belongs in South Florida may always be a challenge, but two decades later, the Panthers are proving it does.

You can follow Erin Brown on Twitter @rinkside.