There was controversy in the Florida Panthers' dressing room
last Friday over the big trade: a stunning Barry Sanders-
for-Chris Warren swap that could have serious implications for
the Panthers' fantasy football league. Now, the league is not to
be confused with the Panthers' NFL pool, which was won the first
week by defenseman Robert Svehla, a Slovak whose football
insights consist of knowing which NFL cities (among those that
also have NHL franchises) have the best restaurants. The
Panthers also have a golf pool and a fantasy basketball league.
Do you think the Miami Heat players held an NHL fantasy draft?
"To be honest," says Panthers right wing Ray Sheppard, "I doubt
the guys on the Heat know who we are."
But what if the Heat players, the Panthers' co-tenants in the
Miami Arena, were to have an NHL draft anyway? Which Florida
players--other than goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, the NHL Player of
the Month for October--would they select? Panthers forward Bill
Lindsay guessed that he might be taken, but only if the draft
lasted 15 rounds. "Hey, Dave," Lindsay shouted across the room
to left wing Dave Lowry, "has this team ever had a guy who
averaged a point a game?"
Lowry screwed up his face in mock disdain and said, "These are
the Florida Panthers, for crying out loud."
The reality is that the Panthers are the ultimate fantasy team,
not for get-a-life Rotisserie players but for those people who
still believe in teamwork, sacrifice, effort and the other
verities of sport that have been undermined by money, marketing,
the star system and other modern ills. Florida, whose
season-opening 12-game unbeaten streak was stopped by the
Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 last Saturday night, might be the last
real team in pro sports.
There is no name above the marquee. There are no holdouts, no
contract psychodramas, no $3 million men on the Panthers' $19
million payroll, which is about half that of the New York
Rangers'. There are occasional discussions about ice time--"I
initiate many of them myself," coach Doug MacLean says--but none
of the arguments that routinely rend the fabric of supposedly
tight-knit NHL teams.
MacLean uses four lines, six defensemen, three sets of penalty
killers and two power-play units. "As a kid playing minor
hockey," Sheppard says, "you used to go through one gate to the
bench, rotate around and go back out through the other when it
was your turn again. Everybody got a chance. This is the closest
I've seen to that." At week's end 17 players had scored this
season for the Panthers, who were 8-1-4. The eight game-winning
goals had come from eight forwards.
When Philadelphia's Joel Otto nudged a puck past Vanbiesbrouck
with 62 seconds left in Saturday night's game, he buried a
Florida streak that was three non-losses short of the 12-0-3
record start by the 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers, who were graced
with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and a handful of
other players even the Heat's Alonzo Mourning might have heard
of. The Panthers are hardly in a class with those Oilers, but
they haven't been feasting on cream puffs, either. Nine of their
first 13 games were against teams that made the final eight of
last spring's Stanley Cup tournament. Four games were against
the Rangers, three against the Flyers and one against the
Colorado Avalanche in Denver--a 2-1 win over the team that swept
the Panthers in the Cup finals.
When MacLean received a fax of Florida's 1996-97 schedule last
summer at his cottage on Prince Edward Island, he scanned the
first 15 games, figured he had seen enough and went back to the
beach. If the Panthers could come through the first 15 games
around .500, MacLean and others in the Florida organization
figured, everything would be swell. "All we want to do," Lindsay
says, "is show that we can contend with the elite teams in the
Don't look now, Bill, but the Panthers are an elite team:
Stanley Cup finalists and masters of October. The truth is that
the Flyers and the Rangers--beset by injuries and handicapped by
the World Cup finals in September, which caused some star
players to miss part of training camp--should have fretted about
playing Florida. "They don't give you rings for record starts,"
said Panthers right wing Scott Mellanby after the loss to the
Flyers quashed any thought that Florida might go, say, 55-0-27.
"Our goals are loftier."
The Panthers' league-leading record is no more an accident than
was their appearance in the Cup finals last spring. If anyone
still thinks the Panthers are a Cinderella story, it is 2:45
a.m., her glass slipper is off, and the tattoo on her biceps is
rippling. "People keep talking about how that's the team to
emulate," Otto says of the Panthers. "They're perceived to be a
coach's team because they all seem to be on the same page, they
all appear to work hard, take short shifts and get off. Every
coach wants that kind of team."
This never was a fairy tale, though the throwing of plastic rats
after goals last season--a practice killed by the Pied Pipers in
the NHL office, who now require a delay-of-game penalty against
a team whose fans toss objects on the ice--cast the Panthers as
somehow charmed. But there's nothing make-believe about a team
that chose so many character players in the 1993 expansion
draft, a team whose record these three-plus years is better than
.500 on the road. There's nothing storybook about a team with
exceptional speed and diligent backcheckers, about a defense
that is among the best four in the league, about a blend of
plumbers and finishers that allows MacLean to dole out ice time
with Solomon-like fairness. And there is nothing far-fetched
about the best player on the team playing the most important
Vanbiesbrouck stands out--and stands up--in a league in which
most goaltenders are either going down (the Patrick Roy
butterfly style is all the rage among young goalies from Quebec)
or going all over the place (like the Flyers' Ron Hextall).
Vanbiesbrouck plays square to the puck, relying not on reflexes
but on technique and anticipation. He is a quiet goalie,
impassive in the net and during the 12 hours before each game.
Vanbiesbrouck calls his game-day preparation "a sound check." He
says this without irony, even though he wraps himself in a cone
of silence. His concentration is legendary. Florida general
manager Bryan Murray delights in telling of the time that
Panthers owner Wayne Huizenga patted Vanbiesbrouck on the
shoulder before a game and the Beezer gave Huizenga an elbow
(presumably not in the check-signing hand). The perpetrator has
no recollection of the incident.
Vanbiesbrouck still beats himself up after a poor performance,
but the beatings don't last as long as they used to. Since the
Vancouver Canucks let him go in the expansion draft,
Vanbiesbrouck, too, has learned to move on. His sense of
responsibility also has grown. "I think it's my job to assist in
player enhancement," he says, although a 1.56 goals-against
average and a .947 save percentage through Sunday should have
constituted enough enhancement for all of the Panthers. On a
team of equals, Vanbiesbrouck understands that he is slightly
more equal than everyone else.
"The first day of training camp," MacLean says, "John comes up
to me and asks, 'Who's got a really, really good shot of making
the team?' I say, 'Well, there's, uh.... Why do you want to know?'
"'I want to take them out to dinner.'"
There's a nascent tradition in Florida, a way of doing things
right. Already the Panthers can fall back on their trip to the
Stanley Cup finals and their Game 7 semifinal road win against
the Pittsburgh Penguins, capital that they can spend if their
self-esteem should flag during the long season ahead. They are
almost ready to make the next step, something a front-line
scorer might hasten. Murray is on the lookout. He talked to the
Montreal Canadiens before they shipped high-scoring center
Pierre Turgeon to the St. Louis Blues last week, but the only
Panthers who seemed to excite the Canadiens were Svehla and Ed
Jovanovski, defensemen who are untouchable. Other general
managers know the Florida players better than the Miami Heat
does, but they are not dangling 35-goal scorers in exchange for
Murray's talent. "Ah," MacLean says, "that's because of the
fourth-round draft picks he keeps offering."
Someday all the good feelings will change. The Panthers will
develop a megastar or import one, and then all-for-one Florida
will have egos to stroke, marketing departments to placate,
money hassles and ice-time disagreements. The Panthers will grow
up. They will be splendid, but they probably won't be unique.
"Face it, a lot of it comes down to money," says 33-year-old
Florida captain Brian Skrudland, "and we have a pretty balanced
payroll. [Vanbiesbrouck is the only Panther earning more than $2
million.] So far no crap has crept into the room: guys talking
contracts, guys talking ice time. Hopefully, it won't. A guy'll
sometimes say stuff like, 'MacLean's not playing me enough,' but
as soon as he opens his mouth, he realizes the guy across the
room deserves to play, and this guy over there deserves to play,
and that guy isn't even dressing but should be in the lineup
because he works so hard in practice, and it shuts him up.
That's because there's a real respect here for the group. The
dynamics of the group might change, but I hope the younger guys
learn something from what we've left behind."
Maybe the next generation on the last real team will learn that
the line between fantasy and reality often is blurred. Or at
least that you never trade Barry Sanders.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Vanbiesbrouck, who is usually a classic stand-up goaltender, can also hit the ice to make a save. [John Vanbiesbrouck deflecting hockey puck]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Skrudland is one of eight Panthers to have scored a game-winner this season. [Brian Skrudland in game]