Twenty six years. Sixteen coaches. Ten general managers, including Dale Tallon twice and a pair of brothers, Bryan and Terry Murray.
There were five owners, not counting the group of eight investors briefly headed by beloved Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar, who called hockey his “first and special love” before vanishing into Alan Cohen’s largest wallet.
Cohen faded after four nonchalant seasons, telling people he liked investing in horses more than hockey players because “they don’t talk back.”
Cliff Viner bought the team. The enduring memory of him was a quick divorce in Key West, where his ex-wife’s relinquishment of any rights to the Panthers was such a talked-about story that the Panthers issued a statement about it.
Viner divorced the Panthers three years later.
Does this help anything? Does it begin to explain why Friday mattered? Is he talking about the long and tortured treadmill the Panthers had been skating on for more than a quarter of a century?
At 10:43 pm Friday night, Carter Verhaeghe was the cavalry again, scoring in overtime as the Panthers beat Washington, 4-3. That meant the Panthers won a playoff series. That’s not a typo. In fact, they won a series. A ghost went poof.
“I’m not going to lie, it feels amazing,” said Aleksander Barkov, who is in his ninth season with the Panthers.
Dolphins fans lament not winning a playoff game since 2000. The Marlins haven’t won since 2003. That’s child’s play 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 benched in a playoff series where the Panthers were swept by New Jersey. Retired from game.
“Don’t ask me why,” he said then.
Here’s another story: Jaromir Jagr, who was booted 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 that series. He asked me something back.
“Is it true that you haven’t won anything since then?” he said
We could go on with these stories. And in. Mike Keenan, as general manager, fired his coach, Duane Sutter, just 26 games into the 2001 season, went behind the bench, and later agreed to terms of a new contract with the only player this franchise needed: Roberto Luongo. Keenan then traded Luongo before the contract was signed.
Luongo was traded to the Panthers seven years later, as part of a construction roster that made the playoffs in 2016. Then all the internal wiring was dismantled in a way only the Panthers could.
Veteran coach Gerard Gallant was fired after an away game in Carolina and left alone, having to wait for a taxi to leave the arena. A coach with no NHL experience, Tom Rowe, took it upon himself to run the front office and coach the team.
The expected happened. The panthers happened. The 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 archived long ago. The Panthers had great hockey men like Bill Torrey providing guidance and sustenance, if they wanted that, until he died in 2018.
“I’m not sure anyone is listening to what I’m saying,” he told me once, after one of those wasted years. All of them are mixed for now.
All this explains why you had to be happy watching the celebration on Friday. And you know who deserves to be happier? Those for life within that franchise. I see ushers who have always been there, team support staff who smile in recognition as they pass through the halls.
Randy Moller has worked there for decades, a good, funny broadcaster who laughs that his last year as a player was 1994-95, the year before the Stanley Cup Final. His broadcast partner, Steve Goldstein, shouted his trademark: “Let’s go home, baby!” after Verhaeghe’s game-winning goal on Friday.
He reminded me the other day that after he said it one night, I mentioned that it would be a good signature line for him. Then he adopted it as such. Now he closed a winning series with her.
Ed Jovanovski, a rookie on the 1996 magic, is now a team announcer, giving a history lesson on Friday as they showed highlights from that distant 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 traded center Stu Barnes.
South Florida was furious. Did he change Barnes? Why was he breaking up that team? So people cared. Maybe Friday night was finally a step back toward that.
“There’s been a lot of talk about not winning, getting knocked out in the first round,” Barkov said. “He’s been there… he’s gone.”
For the first time in 26 empty years, there was something tangible to hold onto. Jonathan Huberdeau, a Panther for 10 years, was able to casually say what no Panther player has said this time of year, which has been a quarter century of waiting.
“Now we have to think about the second round,” he said.