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Doing It to Death

The Nontraditional Fans of Hockey

A personal history of the Florida Panthers through their draft picks

In the end, the Florida Panthers made the playoffs.

And yet.

Eight of their last 10 regular-season games against non-playoff teams, destiny in their hot little hands, and they won two. Faced with the mathematical near-certainty that they’d advance as division champs for the first time in franchise history, and they clung to the doorframe like a basement-dweller at last cast out by his mom.

So concludes the longest postseason drought in the NHL’s 95-year history. The Panthers’ offense was the most impotent in the conference, they had the worst goal differential of any playoff team, and they tied for most overtime games ever lost. And yet, they made the playoffs. All it took was every never-will-be and sham prodigy on this team bettering his meager career-best, coming of age once and for all.

This is not how I imagined it’d go down. I’m not ashamed to say that the Panthers making the playoffs is what I’ve dreamt most about since I was a chubby Catholic-schoolboy dingus. Some preteens daydream about driving or doing it; for me, it was about how a team forever waiting on the future would finally have their glorious flowering, this thrilling late-season comeback where they rip through the home stretch, all of a sudden self-assured and masterful, humiliating the fan bases who still can’t take a South Florida hockey team seriously — and then they’d upset playoff series after playoff series, coming from behind to win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final on the road, the emotion of it all like an atomic blast, the discharge shivering through me, the brightness and the ardor of it denuding me for one permanent second before I’m cauterized — and then I might as well die, because what next?

And yet, this is what I waited for? This feels less like a mitzvah than like something that simply had to come to pass, a biological imperative.

Jonathan Huberdeau, C/LW
2011 NHL draft: 3rd overall
Status: Junior

This is an unfamiliar and quite frankly frightening prospect, I must say, as a Florida fan. Jonathan Huberdeau doesn’t have the skill set of your typical Panther pick. He isn’t some soft-palmed yellowbelly who, who knows, might yet grow into his potential. He projects to be an absolute force at the NHL level.

Him in their sweater is uncanny. The Panthers haven’t had a forward this gifted since they traded Pavel Bure a decade ago. There’s something almost sociopathic about goal-scorers like these, how when they have the puck, they seem to consider their opposition less than human, props to be used in the performance of their greatness. They make me uncomfortable. It’s like they don’t just stickhandle but conjure and pull levers that compel the puck around and between others and then into the net.

I’m much more used to watching such a thing happen to a Panther than I am seeing a Panther effect it. In a league where more than half the teams qualify for the postseason every year, the Florida Panthers haven’t played a playoff game since 2000.1 They haven’t won a playoff game since 1997.2 They haven’t won a playoff series since 1996.3 They’re easily the most irrelevant league’s most irrelevant team.

After the draft, Huberdeau tore up training camp but wasn’t named to the roster. Management sent him back to his junior squad, an unprecedented move for them, because they felt he wasn’t mature enough to handle an 82-game season played against men; he looked as slight and vulnerable as something just out of a cocoon. He’s averaging two points per game in the Quebec Major Junior league. Without him, the Panthers are still somehow on the verge of winning their division.

I don’t know if I’m ready for this.

Erik Gudbranson, D; Nick Bjugstad, C; Quinton Howden, LW
2010 NHL entry draft: 3rd/19th/25th overall
Status: Roster/college/junior

Prospects are different in hockey. They aren’t the finished products of the NBA and NFL drafts. But they also aren’t baseball draftees — low-yield investments whose maturity rates are insanely long and nowhere guaranteed. Hockey prospects fall in the middle. They’re drafted at 18, crude and green. A few can make the jump. Most enter the maze of minor hockey leagues underneath the NHL.

They’re all considered buds of pure potential, but theirs is potential that’s expected to come to fruition fairly soon. (If at 25, 26 they haven’t poked into the NHL daylight, they’re busts.) They’re kept buried in order to build the strength to compete in the corners, and to get accustomed to the speed of the professional game. They’re planted in the favorable conditions against lesser competition so they can germinate as players.

Really, though, it’s psychological. These draftees have all been their teams’ best player since they were 5 years old. They’ve gotten to where they are because every time they hopped the boards, they honestly believed they were about to take control of the game. To thrust them into the NHL before they’re ready is to disabuse them, or, worse, to make them delusional.

This is one reason why Columbus, Phoenix, and Florida are considered hockey’s scorched earth, and why fans grieve for the heirloom players these teams draft every June. They don’t (and can’t4) allow talented young players the time to develop, to get physically and mentally mature to where the play clicks for them like it has in the past, when they had the heart to insist themselves upon the game. Instead, these children (and they are children) are tossed onto desolate teams. Their self-conception, the one thing they’ve known to be true — that they can score or stop someone from scoring at will — withers. They rarely recover.

Dmitry Kulikov, D
2009 NHL entry draft: 14th overall
Status: Roster

Hockey fans are at heart insecure people.

For Canadians, hockey’s a matter of national identity. Consider this quote from Saul Bellow, himself born in Canada: “Canada’s chief entertainment — it has no choice — is to watch (from a gorgeous setting) what happens in our country. The disaster is that there is no other show. Night after night they sit in darkness and watch us on the lighted screen.” True or not, the conception is that very little separates a Canadian and an American but for passive-aggressive politeness5 and the birthright of hockey. Canadians made hockey; it’s a product of their land and their history, and it’s their enduring folk art. They pretend at being perplexed by most Americans’ dismissal of it, but really the apathy is a blessing for them, a pocket of air trapped under the tidal wave of our culture. They can abide American fans from Massachusetts, New York, and Minnesota because those places are politically and climatically similar; the kids can play the sport in winter. What they cannot accept is the idea of a person who grew up sans shinny in Tennessee, Texas, or Florida being a real and true hockey fan. Were that possible, it would mean their last little gasp of cultural autonomy could be drowned out.

For American fans north-by-northeast, hockey is also about identity, but an intranational one. I don’t know if it really is true that hockey fans are that different. I’m not fan enough of any other sport. But I know hockey fans certainly want that difference to be believed in. Baseball, football, and basketball are loved by everyone up and down the social, economic, and geographic strata of our country. To be a hockey fan puts you outside of that. To be from the Midwest or New England and have fond memories of knocking a puck around black ice (memories so cherished because so few can share them) — it’s a way of standing apart.

For the children of expansion,6 hockey’s about gaining leeway for selfness, too, but it’s also about the inferiority complex that drives enthusiasm. I haven’t met them, but I’m sure there’re others like me: ’90s adolescents who fell for their new team in Anaheim, Tampa, Dallas. The other two groups, they have quite the time respecting us Sunbelt hockey fans. I can’t imagine there’s anything like this with any other big-league sport. The “nontraditional fan” (that’s the actual term) is made to feel he lacks the thing that would make him worthy of the game. I know this all sounds ridiculous, and self-pitying, but it’s true. Other fans and syndicated columnists regularly call for my team’s contraction or relocation on the basis of ice hockey “not belonging there,” my “not deserving it.”7 (I’ve done the math, and it’s more than six continuous months of my life I’ve spent watching the Panthers. True enough, in prison, six months is an easy bid.) Last year I listened to the Boston play-by-play guy sing “Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?” when asked an earnest question about my team; a few minutes later he said it should be moved to Quebec City. I could do this all day, name these kinds of incidents. When nobody went to Boston or Pittsburgh games last decade when those teams were atrocious (and one bankrupt), it meant savvy fan bases were voting with their pocketbooks. When nobody went to Atlanta games when that team sucked something fierce (and had throughout its 10-year existence), it meant hockey just wouldn’t take in a Sunbelt city, and the team was moved to Winnipeg.

What I think the traditional fan fails to understand is this has nothing to do with the privilege of playing the game.

Keaton Ellerby, D
2007 NHL entry draft: 10th overall
Status: Benched

It’s March, and the last time the Panthers led their division this late in a campaign was March 2000.

This is normally the best time of the year. The Panthers should be about statistically eliminated from playoff contention. They should have had a fire sale at the trade deadline. They should start playing well, creatively and offensively, now that they’re free from what little expectation anyone had of them. They should roar back, Stephen Weiss giving no fucks, just riffing, carrying the team to seven wins in a row, them galloping nearer and nearer the final playoff spot, apocalyptically, only to fall a point or three short.

Instead, they’re third in the East and have welcomed to the Island of Misfit Toys Wojtek Wolski, a feeble dangler who set all kinds of offensive records in junior but who had played his way out of the NHL. Sean Bergenheim, Shawn Matthias, Jason Garrison — guys I’d given up on ever breaking out — are on pace for career years. Their will has met such little resistance, which, Christ, I’m unaccustomed to.

Michael Frolik, RW
2006 NHL entry draft: 10th overall
Status: Traded

Baby Jagr.” Whoops.

Kenndal McArdle, LW
2005 NHL entry draft: 20th overall
Status: Out of NHL

It’s tyranny, fandom. Your nights and dreams are requisitioned by it. Your options get limited by it. You yourself surrender to it. It’s not all bad, though; there’s a deep assurance in it. It vanquishes some of your freedoms, yes, but this is a happy thing, because nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man than complete freedom.

Whichever team became yours through accident of birth, exposure, whatever — that team became your tyrant, and their play your propaganda. I mean this in the sense that propaganda doesn’t instill anything in people. It can’t. It can only articulate and justify beliefs already lurking in certain minds.

It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of thing. How your team plays echoes your innermost feelings, what you already “know” — but what you feel and know to a large extent comes from your team, because how they do is if nothing else a weird running pantomime of a fan’s life. Their play is in your earliest memories and reflections; it challenges how you look at things. (Try to tell me the cosmologies of a random die-hard Royals fan and a random die-hard Yankees fan will be at all comparable.) Your team’s play stimulates imagination and creativity, engagement and communication between them, the game, and you. It offers something by which to imagine your life.

What I’m saying is, You being a fan issues from you being yourself.

Rostislav Olesz, LW
2004 NHL entry draft: 7th overall
Status: Out of NHL

In the NHL, the blueprint for building a championship team is as follows:
1. Trade away incompatible assets and veterans for draft picks.
2. Tank hard. Really Major League it. The worse you finish in the regular season, the better your odds of drafting a franchise player.
3. Continue to tank for another year to three years. Sooner or later, through excellent scouting or dumb luck, you will draft a core worth building around. Call them up when they’re ready.
4. Lock up the core with long-term contracts at cap-friendly rates. Then surround them with veterans and role players acquired via free agency.
5. Cycle less promising draftees into and out of the bottom lines and defensive pairings. The competition for roster spots will raise the level of play, even though these players are nothing more than temporary support for the young stars.

Among draft-eligible Europeans, Rusty Olesz was ranked third after future MVPs Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. A real can’t-miss. He had pig-iron thighs and was imperturbably keeled when on the puck, Forsberg-lite. He was expected to be the last pillar of a core that included Nathan Horton, Jay Bouwmeester, Stephen Weiss, and Roberto Luongo.

Then, in the 2004 World Junior Championship, Olesz tried to bull his way to the front of the net and got concussed by a Dion Phaneuf shoulder-check to the face. He was carried off the ice on a stretcher.

The Panthers added him to their lineup as soon as they could. He stuck to the periphery of the play, a gawky kid too scared to assert himself, afraid someone might hit him back.

Nathan Horton, RW; Anthony Stewart, RW
2003 NHL entry draft: 3rd/25th overall
Status: Traded/released

Nathan Horton was supposed to be the answer, a power forward who would insist on the play with simple, irresistible, north-south hockey. His shape and musculature could best be described as trapezoidal. When he hunched before a faceoff with his stick across his knees, he called to mind some beast about to kick down the stable. But his hands. Horton’s hands were flighty little things that had their own accord. It was as if when robbing graves Dr. Frankenstein had come across a blacksmith’s arms and torso, and a barge hauler’s lower body, but then dug up a master pianist for his hands.

An 18-year-old rookie, he could jar the puck free from men twice his age with these monster body checks. He could drop gloves and pulp faces — but only when he got mad. Otherwise he’d never go near the corners or the net-mouth scrum. He’d look for the perfect play from the rind of the offensive zone. When he’d get the puck, rather than cram it down the other team’s throat, which he could have so goddamn easily done, he fledged it with his stick like it was a baby bird with a broken wing. He’d wait and fondle and cosset the thing and then finally release a perfect soaring wrist shot, one of the best in the game. It was moving to watch, actually. But he rarely got those shots off because his release was so careful and involved. And he never did compromise, never tried to bang out faster, uglier shots that would’ve surely netted him 40 goals. He had his way of doing things.

I used to think it so frustrating to watch a guy who had been gifted with all the tools except one: the wherewithal to put them together. But now I think, Even if Nate could be more successful by scaling back his game, skating in straight lines and going hard to the net, why should he? So many prospects are drafted for their creativity and promise, but then when they’re called up to the show they’re told to forget all that, shed the game they built up and got picked for, and survive by playing barer, more abridged. Horton seems happy and successful enough playing his way, with flourish and curlicue. We should all be so lucky.

Jay Bouwmeester, D; Petr Taticek, C
2002 NHL entry draft: 3rd/9th overall
Status: Traded/out of NHL

Saturdays starting around 1 p.m., my dad would shoo us all out of the kitchen so he could watch college football. He had his three institutions: Navy, Vanderbilt, and the University of Florida. He never told me how they ranked in terms of his affection, but I think they went, in ascending order: Navy, UF, Vandy. Navy had the vanished glory and his shrimpish patron, Joe Bellino; UF was bad back then but not bad enough; hopeless Vandy was where his heart lay. He’d often brag that during his time there, the Commodores had no more than two wins in a season. This he would follow with a prideful recounting of how the Sarasota Sailors won none and tied one in the years he was on the high school football team.

In my memory the three teams’ games would be staggered at 1 p.m., 4 p.m., and 7 p.m. The swing door to the kitchen would get closed at 1:01, and the comically small TV on the dish shelf turned on. As the games and the day progressed, my dad would start piling things against the inside of the door – chairs, stacks of old newspapers, our sleeping dog in her bed. When I put my ear against it, I could make out my father’s consistent, low-level curses against God, country, and the officials of the Southeastern Conference. It was like listening to a conch from a profane sea. Now and again would come a single, erupted YES!, usually to be followed be a longly held NOOOO!, which our startled dog mirrored.

The night game was when he’d really get into things. Cigarette smoke would curl alchemically from under the door, its one diamond window black. He watched in darkness. Something about these games — they’re always Vandy games to me, though I know that’s impossible — compelled him to stomp around the kitchen, open and close the oven a certain number of times, flick the porch light on and off. His curses got strange, absentminded: They went from JESUS FUCKING CHRISTs to SHITFUCKs to GOD DAMN FUCKBALLSes. After the final whistle, he would stay in the kitchen for the duration of his rage’s two-hour half-life. Then he’d dismantle the barrier and emerge with this resigned glow, nodding his head and smiling with his mouth closed, like all was right with his world.

When we did go to games, it was only to the meaningless ones, Florida Marlins doubleheaders with so few in attendance that we could sit with a seat between us and throw our legs over the next row. On the walk from car to stadium, he’d tell me that if he died at the game — heart attack or frozen rope, didn’t matter — I was to take his wallet and keys and just leave the body. Then we’d find our seats and watch with our heads in our hands.

If you were convicted of patricide in the Roman Empire, what they’d do is first whip the living shit out of you, and then when you were bloody and tattered they’d sew you into a 145-gallon leather sack with a dog, a snake, a rooster, and a monkey. Then they’d throw the sack in the ocean. Can you imagine that? How, before it sank, the thing must’ve looked like some air-browned heart in its last throes, crazy palpitating? Death by arrhythmia, which is a fancy word for a heart’s want of regularity.

Anyway, I always wondered how impossible it must be for a sports-mad father to have a son who wasn’t himself a fanatic.

Stephen Weiss, C; Lukas Krajicek, D
2001 NHL entry draft: 4th/24th overall
Status: Roster/out of NHL

The season half over, Stephen Weiss has become the Panthers’ all-time leader for games played. The franchise awarded him a plaque and a golf bag, which was fitting. At the end of this season, Weiss will have played 637 games, not a one of them in the playoffs. Because of injuries he’s fallen behind the active leader, Jay Bouwmeester, who’s gone 717. The record is 799, and it belongs to former Panthers captain Olli Jokinen. Before him it belonged to a Panthers assistant coach, Guy Charron, who played 734.

Weiss has been the Panthers’ go-to guy for some time now. For better or worse, he’s the face of the franchise, a once-promising centerman who’s settled into his deficiencies. In his last five seasons he averaged 52 points, which in terms of offense is a straight line, white noise. He has a good deal of hockey sense, the inky associative thinking that blooms unconsciously in the best players. But his problem is he’s so scrawny and irresolute that he gets overpowered before he can act on it. He looks as though he’s sighing the entire time he’s on the ice.

He never became and never will become the superstar he was expected to grow into when he joined the team as a 19-year-old. He’s just dingily competent, the perfect sparring partner for other teams’ top lines. He’s a great diagnostic, someone to act on and measure against.

Denis Shvidki, RW
1999 NHL entry draft: 12th overall
Status: Out of NHL

I was there the day Stephen Weiss was picked. The Panthers hosted the draft that year. My dad dropped me off in front of the arena, wished me and the team luck, and then went across the street to the Sawgrass Mills mall, to spend the day smoking cigarettes and checking out the “sweet things in streetwear.” He instructed me to come find him when I was ready to go home; he’d be in front of Churromania, probably asleep.

I wore my white Panthers jersey, which despite being six years old still hung off me like a scarecrow poncho. I’d just finished freshman year of high school, and my pubescence was mad tardy. Ilya Kovalchuk went first, then Jason Spezza, and then poor doomed Alex Svitov. That these players were three years older than me seemed impossible. Their faces were already resolved, like the ones in parents’ yearbooks.

The Panthers’ brass took to the podium and selected Stephen Weiss fourth overall. Up there, shaking hands, he looked bewildered and ill at ease, like maybe he was about to receive a trophy for a math competition his mom had signed him up for. They blanketed him in the same white jersey, and it came down to his knees, too. In the weeks leading up to the draft, I’d read scouting reports about how he was Spezza’s nemesis, and how they would match up for many an Eastern Conference final to come. Weiss was compared to Steve Yzerman, and it was said that defensively he was far sounder at 18.

Later I got up to join a long line of people waiting for a picture with the Stanley Cup. In front of me was a middle-aged Bruins fan clad in a replica of their undead-Pooh-bear jersey. Across the nameplate he’d sewn “THE FOIL,” as in “Puttin’ on the foil.” He had 72 for a number, the year of the (then-) last of Boston’s Stanley Cups. He was also alone, so I struck up conversation, some friendly ribbing about the Florida-Boston ’96 playoff series.

“Bet you hate Billy Lindsay,” I said. “Flat-footed Ray Borque on that diving goal.”

“Bill Lindsay is a scrub hockey player who could only be famous in this shit-ass hockey market,” he said.

I rocked on the balls of my feet. Into his shoulder I reported that Joe Thornton was too dainty, too hollow to dominate. He wasn’t the franchise center Boston needed.

He responded, “How many times you skated?”

After a while, I tried to grease the wheels of reciprocation. “Of course,” I said, “the Cats are a one-man show. Bure scored 59, but that was on knees held together with chewed gum and prayer. They are not a good team.”

He turned with his chin jacked, glanced at me sidelong. His was a ropey mullet, the hair winnowing toward the root as though his scalp had shrunk. He said, “I live in Tamarac. No shit they’re bad.”

I asked, “Why not follow the Panthers, then?” He snorted and said, “I go to games.” Which I knew meant he was one of the legion of snowbirds who go to Panther games to root against them when their own teams are in town. He asked again, “How many times you skated, kid?”

The line moved purgatorially. Eventually he cracked and eulogized the Bruins. He revealed himself to be the kind of homer from whom the blind light of approval falls on all of his team equally. Jason Allison wasn’t slow but deliberate. Andrei Nazarov was the toughest Russian ever to play the game. Byron Dafoe had at least half a dozen Vezina-quality years left. Other teams were just that, canvases for the Bruins to create over, and they sucked, especially if they had former Bruins on their rosters. “Anson Carter,” he said, “is an oaf and a turd.”

We got to the front. Before taking his picture with the Cup, he looked me in the face and said, “Get real freaking grabby, kid, go ahead. This is the closest you will come to this. Florida Panthers fan. Fucking kidding me. Florida Panthers fan. Fuck out of here.”

I knew enough not to touch the thing, so in the photo my right arm floats around the Cup’s barrel like we’re mock-intimate.

Mike Brown, LW
1997 NHL entry draft: 20th overall
Status: Out of NHL

This year Weiss is centering two new wingers, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann. They’re all three of them undersized, averaging 5-foot-11 and 189 pounds, which happen to be the exact dimensions of Stephen Weiss in dry equipment. They have the blond hair and saturated eyes of door-to-door evangelizers.

Versteeg plays with the bantam vanity of a minutes-older, more assured twin brother. Fleischmann with the puck in the offensive zone is as recursive as a chased chicken. Between them Weiss has narrated the play efficiently, omnisciently, but never jaw-droppingly; he’s been a great second-tier artist, a Russell Banks with the puck. The three have good chemistry, which is to say their individual pools of hockey sense are miscible. They’ve combined for 66 points in 20 games. Often they aren’t subject to the play, can actually sustain pressure in the offensive third, and this alone makes them the best line the Panthers have ever had.

Teams are figuring out an easy way to negate them, though. Play physically. Body them relentlessly. Under a heavy forecheck, they panic. They try to reach out, they fail, and they fall deeper back. They get hermetically sealed in their own end of the rink when they can’t dictate play.

To watch this as a Panthers fan is counterintuitively reassuring, not unlike the way in which dragging the covers back over yourself when you’re already late can be.

Marcus Nilson, RW
1996 NHL entry draft: 20th overall
Status: Out of NHL

It was early in the third period of the seventh game of the 1996 Eastern Conference final, and clenched in my right fist was a bed of bloody hair with a gold charm nestled inside. I could hear my family but faintly. They were shouting in the kitchen, exchanging gifts. It was my older sister’s 13th birthday. She had her girlfriends over, these lumpy adolescent gargoyles, and I was hoping I’d dampened their mood at least a little bit. In my mind, Brianna was sulking with a blood-specked napkin pressed against her ear, the rest laughing at her through mouths mortared with cake and icing.

I was locked in my bedroom at the other end of the house. This was where I got pent up when I had one of my rages. They were bad. This one was particularly so, a fugue I’d come out of with my sister’s friend’s earring in a clutch of torn hair. I’d stared at it, uncomprehending, thinking of prizes dug from cereal. Then my dad twisted both arms behind my back and perp-walked me to my cell.

Last thing I remembered was playing hockey on quad skates in the driveway. My older sisters had never invited me to join their games before. We didn’t have proper equipment, so we made do with cut-and-taped yardsticks and a Gatorade cap for a puck. The game was loose and vicious. Brianna, an actual ice hockey forward, was upset that I was allowed to play and so took runs at me throughout. My pupal boy’s body did me no favors — I was (and remain) a terrible skater, and I could only just keep up with the play. Brianna eventually connected with a check, kneed my thigh hard, and sent me tumbling across the pavement. I tilted my head back so the tears would stay on my eyes, and I shaved them with blinks, but they leaked anyway, and then Brianna started in with the taunts.

This is nothing special to kid siblings everywhere, I’m sure, this feeling ineffectual and out of your depth. You want to prove so badly that you can hang, and you dream of the day you’ll finally be able to. But you know that by then nobody’ll want to play anymore. So what you do is howl, get your skates back under you, and take matters into your own hands.

In my room I was scooted Indian-style with my nose almost touching the screen of an ancient wood-paneled TV, its convexity fitted into my concavity. Pittsburgh scored on a power play to tie it at 1. I felt weirdly calm, even though I didn’t understand all of what was happening. What I knew about the Panthers came from my NHL ’94 video game manual: Overall Rating — 52; Home Ice Advantage — Low; Road Ice Advantage — Low; Power Play — Insignificant; Penalty Killing — Weak. But I was captivated because guys like Billy Lindsay (42 overall) had beaten Eric Lindros (84) and Ray Borque (99) and now had a chance to beat Mario Lemieux (100).

With minutes to go, Tommy Fitzgerald took an impossible, 58-foot slap shot that wriggled spermatozoally through Tom Barrasso and into the Pittsburgh net. I fell backward onto the floor and beat my fists against the carpet. The Florida Panthers were going to the Stanley Cup final.

The announcers were pissed, I remember that. Now I know it was because the ’96 Panthers played the trap to perfection. Hockey people hated the trap, still do. They consider it a negative system, captious and cowardly fundamentalist hockey.

The whole point of the trap is to limit offensive chances and reduce uncertainty. Four players arrange themselves at the center of the rink, ribbing it, while a fifth angles the opposing puck carrier to one side of the ice, where he’s overwhelmed. It’s a reactionary formation that untalented (or talented but tentative) teams can use to filter the play into something more manageable. The trap is tempting to fall back on because it holds the game in check.

The ’96 Panthers were not good. They were a three-year-old expansion franchise, a rag-and-bone collection of other teams’ cast-offs and failed possessions. But they succeeded because each player played the trap like a true believer. It insulated him from his shortcomings. And in taking away the time and space and volition of your Lindroses and Lemieuxses, in forcing them to see the rink as a place where they couldn’t impose their will but instead were imposed upon — in doing this, the ’96 Panthers shaped the game in their own image. In doing this and winning, they forced empathy: Now you know how the game has looked to us.

The Colorado team Florida met in the final was stacked with legends and future Hall of Famers. They dismantled the trap. They scored early in games and forced the Panthers to play assertively, which they couldn’t do, because the whole of their philosophy was “take no chances, let them come to us.” Colorado won three straight. The day of the fourth game, I found my sister and Brianna skating in the driveway. I tackled Brianna, bit her until she bled. I wasn’t even mad. I just wanted to watch the Panthers in peace.

I sat on the floor inside a perimeter of rabbit-ear flicker as they held on for three periods and three overtime periods before leaving the smallest of openings and falling, 1-0.

Radek Dvorak
1995 NHL entry draft: 10th overall
Status: Traded; re-signed; traded

I can’t DVR the games. I’ve tried. Watching those is like watching a prerecorded church service. The attendant holy spirit is long gone.

So, I’ve watched the Panthers rather than:

Attend my senior prom.

Take an all-expenses-paid trip to Spain. (They were three games back of the no. 8 seed!)

Watch or celebrate my college’s first basketball championship.

Go to the birth of my cousin.

Go to a literary agent’s open-bar birthday-slash-networking extravaganza.

Go to my grandfather’s funeral.

Ed Jovanovski, D
1994 NHL entry draft: 1st overall
Status: Traded; re-signed; roster

Oho I descry you, temptation. But this is what the Panthers do: win six out of 10 at the start of the season, goose hope. Then, after I’ve called my dad, told him this team looks different, they go three for 10 in November, again, and the four sides of the façade flop outward, revealing a team of ‘tweener assholes, again, a Potemkin contender for all of two weeks.

This is them, though. An ownership carousel, an internal salary cap, and a permanent GM interregnum have for the past two decades accounted for a team made up of other people’s ideas about what a team should be made up of. The only constants have been stagnancy and Stephen Weiss.

And so it is that this year 16 players on the 23-man roster are new to the team. Eleven are former first-rounders whose growth was stunted here or elsewhere. Their coach is coaching his first NHL team. This isn’t unusual. Just as a body is nothing but cells supplanting themselves nonstop, the Panthers are a team forever playing through their first or last chances.

Your typical Panther is underseasoned, underwhelming. He’s a bottom-six guy thrust into a top-six role. Each season is the season he’ll finally break out. And then, over the course of 5, 10, 40 games, you realize that no, he won’t, his hands are petrified. His and the team’s development is a progression of decreasing possibility.

Rob Niedermayer, RW
1993 NHL draft: 5th overall
Status: Out of NHL

On June 24, 1993, the Florida Panthers and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim formed their rosters by way of an expansion draft. The other 24 NHL teams each declared 15 of their players untouchable; the Panthers and the Ducks culled from the hand-me-downs.

Two days later, they participated in their first entry draft. The Ducks chose a paper-frail playmaking winger who had shattered college scoring records — Paul Kariya. The Panthers chose the big raw boy, Rob Niedermayer. He was a project. He wasn’t even top-10 in scoring in his junior league. But his frame and his unrefined speed and skill suggested that he might one day put it all together. He also had pedigree: He was baby brother to Scott Niedermayer, who’d gone third overall two years prior.

Niedermayer joined the team immediately. He was gritty and defensively solid. He fit right in with the expansion squad. He was the safer choice. His offense would come in due time.

Far from being a complete, mature team, the inaugural Florida Panthers were nonetheless precocious. They coped by playing defensive hockey, by trapping. They finished with 83 points, the most ever for an expansion team and just one shy of the last playoff spot. Future prospects looked promising.

Kent Russell is a writer who lives in New York.

Filed Under: Florida, General topics, History, Hockey, Teams