With the announcement on Friday that the NHL is cancelling all NHL games for the month of November (over 300 games in all have now been cancelled), it is beginning to sink in how devastating the lockout is going to be to a team like the Florida Panthers. While not alone in this saga, the momentum that was created by last season’s division championship is beginning to lose it’s luster. Don’t lie if you’re a Panther fan, you know this is true.
After not appearing in the playoffs for over a decade ( I am waiting to never have to say that again), the Florida Panthers finally tasted post season hockey, and did it by winning their first ever division championship. The team which in previous years fought very hard to put fans in the building, and did it many times by virtually giving seats away (remember when you had to buy a Subway BLT sandwich to get a free ticket?), no longer was faced with such a challenge. Last year’s season started out positively, and continued for the entire year as the Cats either flirted with or were in first place for the whole season.
When you came to the arena, it was filled mostly with Panther fans for a change as the Florida Panther faithful not only began to believe in their team, they began to show up! There were 17 sellouts last season as mentioned by Dieter Kurtenbach on Twitter yesterday:
So for those of you who think that we don’t have fans, you’re dead wrong….we do. However because of the makeup of our area, there are a number of obstacles that a team like the Panthers must face. First of all, competition of the other teams in the area fighting for that spectator dollar. Last year wasn’t so hard as the Dolphins and Marlins never caused much of an issue, but the Heat were usually the one’s that affected attendance. College football with the Miami Hurricanes often hurt ticket sales on a Saturday night as well. The biggest challenge however has been related to winning. People were tired of the years of suffering with inept play, bad trades, lazy players, and dumb free agent signings which led to some extremely tough hockey to watch. Rather than support a loser, the general, or casual fan stayed away, and found something else to spend their money on. In addition, and I could talk on this as a single subject forever, most people who live in this area are not from here, and have ties to another team, or sport, and find it difficult at times to “stick” with South Florida hockey. The other side of that coin is that many of those who were born and raised here have not had hockey all their lives to support, so at times for them too, it’s been a challenge.
But last year, as the team began to win, and win consistently, the fan base became more involved. They started showing up, and many of them brought their plastic rats with them. The tradition of tossing rats that was born in the 1995-1996 campaign was back. The fans were not only happy, they were ecstatic with the results. Players like Jose Theodore, Kris Versteeg and young defenceman Erik Gudbranson became fan favorites. Ed Jovanovski came “home” and in what could be described as “written in the scriptures”, scored the first goal of the season against Tampa Bay. The seven game playoff series in round one against the New Jersey Devils was about as exciting as you could imagine, and when it was finally over, I know each and every Panther fan was exhausted and in pain. The stunning overtime loss hurt that is for sure, but the season long march to the playoffs took a toll on our souls, as many of those games were filled with more excitement and surprise than we were used to. The sudden ending to the season left us wanting more, and after the pain of that loss subsided, we began looking forward to this year, and raising the championship banner on opening night.
The team had done so well, and has so many future prospects that all you could think about was coming back this year, and doing it all over again. Unfortunately any fan that is on the fence is now in danger of not coming back if and when this season does start. Very sad to say, but at this juncture, the competition for attention and sports dollars is fierce. The Miami Dolphins with a rookie quarterback are actually in the division race for a change. How long that lasts remains to be seen, but this is a football town for the most part. The Miami Heat are coming off an NBA championship and fans will want a repeat.
The momentum that was created by last year’s outstanding season is in danger of being lost. I hope that’s not the case, but unlike me, a die hard fan, you know I’ll be back, I cannot say the same for many others. There are possibly thousands who may not come back, and that is the shame of all this. The Florida Panthers, while not quite a Stanley Cup contender are being built to very soon challenge for one. With a deep prospect pool, a few young guns already beginning to or set to begin to make themselves known, combined with a group of veterans that know how to win, give us hope. But each day this lockout goes without being settled is a day that likely loses another fan or two.
The Panthers like many other teams (Dallas, Carolina, Tampa, Nashville, and Phoenix to name a few), cannot afford that to happen. I’m sure that some of the fans that are on the fence are mad, angry or just don’t care. I know how you feel as all those thoughts run through my head constantly. I’ll be back when this is all over because I love this game too much, and have way too much invested in it to walk away. The lockout has become one big greedy mess, and the teams that don’t have a “traditional” fan base like the Florida Panthers are going to suffer. I’m being honest here. Unless we have a settlement and begin the season close to December or even by the time of the Winter Classic, I fear arena’s will be less than full many nights in those cities I mentioned.
I want to be wrong. I want you to prove me wrong. I just don’t want to wait too long to find out.
Thanks for reading. We welcome your comments and opinions.
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