Every available ticket to Panthers games in 1997-98 has been
sold, and more than 6,000 fans have inquired about season
tickets for next year, when Florida moves into its new arena in
Fort Lauderdale. All these ticket buyers aren't gobbling up
hockey seats to enjoy the pleasures of the air conditioning.
Panthers hysteria traces back two seasons to the day when right
wing Scott Mellanby killed a rat in the dressing room with his
stick and Florida fans began celebrating goals by tossing
plastic rats onto the ice. The overachieving Panthers reached
the Stanley Cup finals that year in just their third season.
Then last year, Florida lost its magic and was eliminated in the
first round of the playoffs. "Last year we had high
expectations," says Mellanby, "and we were disappointed when we
fell short of our goals."
Florida was indeed short on its goals last season, when it lit
the lamp just 221 times, the fewest of any playoff team. The
Panthers hope to invigorate their offense with the free-agent
signing of 32-year-old center Dave Gagner, who has scored 25 or
more goals seven times in his career, and a return to form by
center Kirk Muller, who was acquired last March and who had
scored 30 or more goals five times in his 13-year career before
scoring 21 in 1996-97.
The Panthers will carry at least seven players with less than
three years of NHL experience, and coach Doug MacLean is
counting on breakthrough seasons from some of them, including
defenseman Ed Jovanovski, who suffered through a sophomore slump
after a brilliant rookie year. MacLean is also high on
fifth-year center Rob Niedermayer, who he believes can be an
All-Star in 1997-98. "This is a tough league for kids to play
in," MacLean says, "but these guys are ready."
Florida must fill a leadership void left when center Brian
Skrudland, its captain, signed a free-agent deal with the
Rangers. To that end Florida added the C to Mellanby's jersey.
During his introduction as captain in August, Mellanby promised
to fire up the Panthers by hunting prey larger than rats this
season. During Florida's Stanley Cup run, the Chinese zodiac
indicated that it was the Year of the Rat. According to the
Chinese calendar, this is the Year of the Ox, which leads to a
bold prediction: If Mellanby kills an ox with a stick in
Florida's dressing room this season, the Panthers will win the
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO [Peter Forsberg]
COLOR PHOTO: DAN HAMILTON/VANTAGE POINT [Paul Kariya]
1. Peter Forsberg, Avalanche
2. Eric Lindros, Flyers
3. Mike Modano, Stars
1. Paul Kariya, Mighty Ducks
2. Keith Tkachuk, Coyotes
3. Brendan Shanahan, Red Wings