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The middle-aged man said he had two rubber rats stuffed in his
crotch. He said he had two more rats stuffed in his armpits.
There were other rats, too, he said, hidden in other places on
his body, but he declined to elaborate. Fair enough. "I have
enough rats," he said, "to do the job."

It was late in the afternoon on one of those 90[degree] spring
days in Miami that tell you summer has arrived in South Florida
and the next easy breath might not be drawn in these parts until
sometime in late September. The man was standing across the
street from Miami Arena a few minutes before Game 3 or Game 4 or
maybe even Game 6 of the Florida Panthers' Eastern Conference
finals series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It's hard to say
which game because--looking now at the dizzying swirl of
celebration that has engulfed the Miami area during the NHL
playoffs--everything has become a blur. The man was wearing a
sponge-rubber hat shaped like a wedge of cheese. Heads and tails
from rubber rats stuck out from the sponge-rubber wedge of
cheese. The rats' eyes blinked electronically. The eyes were red.

Miami! Rats! Hockey! The improbable Panthers were on their
joyride to the Stanley Cup finals against the
almost-as-improbable Colorado Avalanche and... and what? Rubber
and plastic rats were being thrown from the rafters of Miami
Arena to celebrate every Florida goal. The shower of synthetic
rats had grown heavier with each playoff round and by last week
had turned into a veritable Biblical plague. Hockey was being
discussed in Spanish at the sidewalk cafes in South Beach.
Singers at the Howl at the Moon Saloon club in Coconut Grove
were being drowned out by the chant "Let's Go, Panthers!"

"You have to sneak the rats into the building," the man, Dan
Platt, a telephone worker from Hollywood Beach, Fla., said. "You
can't just walk into the arena carrying a rat, you know. They
check you. Security. They make men take off their hats. They
open women's pocketbooks. If you get caught, you have to check
the rats at Guest Relations. That's if you get caught."

"The other day we tried to figure out how much people had paid
for all the rats that have been thrown on the ice this year,"
Dean Jordan, the Panthers' vice president of business
operations, said after Florida, a third-year expansion team,
completed its run to the finals with a 3-1 road win over the
favored Pittsburgh Penguins last Saturday night. "We know
roughly how many rats have been thrown, and we have a pretty
good idea how much they cost. The estimate we made was $55,000.
Think about that--$55,000 worth of rats."

From one rat intruder in the locker room, killed by Florida
winger Scott Mellanby's stick moments before the Panthers took
the ice for their home opener on Oct. 8, to $55,000 worth of
synthetic rats being heaved onto the ice to celebrate a march to
the Stanley Cup finals: Has so strange a good-luck
ritual--Mellanby's deadly stick scored two goals that first
night, and the story of his exploits in the dressing room and on
the ice begat one rat, two rats, now thousands of rats--ever
grown so large? Has there ever been a more extreme contrast of
cold-weather sport and warm-weather city? Sled-dog racing in
Cairo! Hockey in Miami!

"It's all happened so fast, I don't think any of us knows what's
hit us," said Jordan. "The franchise was awarded in December of
1992, but we didn't really set up shop, have an office and
everything, until June of 1993. Our first season started in
September of 1993. None of the business people, myself included,
knew anything about hockey. I remember a meeting that June, we
had this big pad and a pencil and we were telling our people,
'O.K, we're in the Atlantic Division, and these are the names of
the other teams in our division.' That's how basic we had to be."

A team that three years ago didn't even know what its fan base
would be--one mistaken thought early on was that vacationers
from the North would be among the primary ticket buyers--has
suddenly discovered in the playoffs that the base reaches
everywhere and includes everyone. From the Keys to Palm Beach
and beyond, a love affair has developed in a hurry. As the
Panthers' recycled journeymen and teenage draft choices, backed
by All-Star goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, rolled through the Boston
Bruins in five games, the Philadelphia Flyers in six and the
Penguins in seven, the mania grew.

Supermarkets in the Miami area are selling special rat
cakes--cupcakes with rats drawn in frosting on the top. Players
are being given standing ovations when they walk into bagel
shops for breakfast. At Joe Robbie Stadium on Saturday night,
the Florida Marlins showed Game 7 of the Panthers-Penguins
series on the megascreen between innings. Miami Arena public
address announcer John DeMott was on hand to call the Florida
goals with his familiar cry of "Pannnnnnthers!" After each of
the three Florida tallies, the ballpark rang with shouts of

"It's all happened overnight," Miami Herald columnist Dan Le
Batard said last weekend. "If any columnist in South Florida
tells you that before April he knew the color of the blue line,
he'd be lying. Now we're all writing about backchecking schemes
in the neutral zone."

Le Batard points at his own family as evidence of the burgeoning
interest. His parents were born and raised in Cuba. Until
recently neither had ever been to a hockey game. Neither knew
anything about the sport. Le Batard's father, Gonzalo, asked Dan
if the puck was "made of steel." His mother, Lourdes, watched a
Florida-Philadelphia playoff game thinking for half of it that
the Flyers were the Panthers because they had the letter P on
their jerseys. Game 6 against Pittsburgh, a 4-3 Florida win, was
the second game his parents attended. "My father was crying at
the end," Dan says. "He's not an emotional man. I think I can
count on one hand the number of times I've ever seen him cry.
This was one of them."

The fans have been drawn in by the magic of an underdog fighting
for a championship. Never mind that many don't know--or
care--about such technicalities as offsides and icing. Score a
goal. Throw a rat. What's hard about that? Approximately 40
arena attendants, dressed in Orkin Exterminating uniforms in a
fine show of instant commercialism, run onto the ice with large
buckets to clean up the rodents as the opposing goalie huddles
inside his net for safety.

"The number of rats gets bigger and bigger," says Danny Reiter, a
member of the Orkin-sponsored cleanup crew. "After the first
goal in the first home game of the series against Pittsburgh, we
filled two barrels for the first time this season. There must
have been, what, 3,000 rats on the ice?"

"There are the rubber ones, the plastic ones and these kind of
furry ones that some people throw," says Reiter's sister Jodi,
who also works on the crew. "The furry ones are the ones you
don't really want to touch. Do you know what I mean? They're too
real. Creepy. You get hit off the head a lot. It's like people
are aiming for you. I got hit off the head the other night with
a computer mouse."

The No. 1 question for Panthers public relations director Greg
Bouris is "What happens to all those rats after they're taken
from the ice?" His answer: "They're destroyed humanely." DeMott
delivers a monotone Miranda-like warning over the P.A. system
before each game, telling fans they should not be throwing
"anything onto the ice at any time," but team owner Wayne
Huizenga wears a white rat pin on his suit coat. His wife,
Marti, throws rats. His son Wayne Jr. also throws rats.

"He throws out a rat that has a string attached to it," one of
the Orkin workers says of Wayne Jr. "You go to pick up the rat
and he pulls the string. Scares you to death."

"How old is he?" another worker asks. "About 10 years old?"

"No, he must be 30, maybe 35."

The Panthers' success is best illustrated by the dark stitches
and purple lines across the faces of the players. A black eye
for Mellanby. Three stitches and a broken nose for Tom
Fitzgerald. Ten stitches for Stu Barnes. Three missing teeth for
Radek Dvorak. Aside from Vanbiesbrouck, this is a no-star,
low-budget operation--which is part of its charm. Work harder.
Work longer. Dive. Fight. Survive. Two months ago the faces
wouldn't have been recognized five steps away from the team's
practice rink in Pompano Beach. Now a disc jockey does his show
from the Miami Arena parking lot. A woman brings a special blend
of five grapefruit juices for the players, Panther Punch. A man
brings his homemade banana bread. The unknown players are
becoming known.

"This team is still in kind of an embryonic stage in a lot of
ways," says Florida president Bill Torrey, the architect of the
New York Islanders' four Stanley Cup championships from 1980 to
'83. "The Islanders were much more developed. We have no big
playmaker on this team. We have no 50-goal scorer. What we do
have is great team speed, four lines that all play our system
and two forecheckers who go deep. With [6'2", 210-pound] Eddie
Jovanovski and [6'1", 210-pound] Rhett Warrener, we added size
and strength at the blue line. And we work. This isn't a team
that will just go away."

What's next? Can this team finish off perhaps the greatest
surprise in NHL history? Can it handle this final challenge from
Patrick Roy and the Avalanche, yet another team that appears
more talented? Will the Panthers be the first hockey team to
have a mambo or a tango or a cha-cha-cha written in honor of its
accomplishments? Will fans in Golden Age neighborhoods turn up
their hearing aids and slow down their pacemakers for the
finals? Has Fidel Castro been watching and enjoying? Is the puck
truly made of steel? Or just the men? What?

"They call me Ratman," Platt says in his cheese hat that's
filled with rats. "I'll be there."

"Are you the only Ratman?" he is asked. "Or are there other
Ratmen, too?"

"There's a guy, wears a whole rat suit," Platt says. "You'll see
him. I'm told he's a psychiatrist in the real world."

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES They may be hockey naifs, but fans at Miami Arena do know a hat trick from a rat trick. [Florida Panthers fans wearing hats shaped like Stanley Cup]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO After Pittsburgh's Tom Barrasso allowed a goal in Game 3, it was time to call in the Orkin man. [Tom Barrasso hunched in goalmouth while man sweeps plastic rats from ice]

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Fans at Saturday's Marlins game cheered while watching on the big screen as Florida made the finals. [Florida Panthers fan holding plastic rat while watching baseball game]