From the Outside Looking In

What do you call a Snowbird that just never goes back up north? Smart?

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a “Snowbird” is someone from a cold climate that migrates south for the winter only returning home when the weather gets bearable again.

As a born and raised Montrealer, every winter I would do what pretty much everyone else on the island does: Go to Florida for Winter Vacation. And so I did, for 25 consecutive years. I’d hop on the snowbird express and spend 2 weeks in South Florida. As the years went on and when I was able to plan the trip myself and not conform to my parents’ itinerary, I thought it would be pretty cool to see the Montreal Canadiens take on the Florida Panthers in Sunrise.  So, for many years I would join my fellow Montrealers from Surfside, Bal Harbor, Sunny Isles, Hallandale, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Boca, and Deerfield, and venture West away from the beach for an evening of Habs hockey.

We’d come in, be obnoxious, chant “Olé Olé Olé” and make Panthers fans wish we got stopped at the border.

This isn’t going to be a piece about Habs fans or a piece about the Habs, actually this is probably the last you’ll hear about the Habs from me on this site.

This is going to be a piece about what a Montrealer, who is a frequent flyer to South Florida, has learned about the Florida Panthers and where they’ve been, who they are and where they’re going.

On top of coming down every Winter, I’d also be in Florida 5-6 times per year so I know what it’s like down here. I know the market, I know the fan base, and I know the intricacies and complications that the Panthers face on a day-to-day basis because I lived on the opposite side of the fence my entire life.

The biggest thing that I took away from my frequent visits to Sunrise was that while the Panthers fan base isn’t large by definition, it is proud and passionate. Very passionate.

So before we get into this, a tip of the hat to the Cat fans out there who bleed red and show up when everyone expects you not to.

Now onto the Panthers.

Pleading for patience is something that I’m sure you all have heard countless times. Patient is probably the last thing you want to be as Panthers fans. You have been patient for years. You’ve been waiting for a stable contender since the Stanley Cup run of 96, and who is to blame you for wanting to win?

I’m sure you’ve heard the “this time it will be different” line before, but this time, THIS time will actually be different.

Why will it be different this time?

Because of Vincent Viola. For as long as I can remember the Panthers have separated Hockey and Business. For some reason the two couldn’t coincide. They’d ice the team and put on the promotions and try to fill the rink however they could. With Viola, I think the Panthers’ brass know that Hockey IS the business. Viola is letting his Hockey Operations department spend to the cap. This alone makes all the difference. You have to give yourself the best chance to win, and using finance to do that is part of playing in the NHL.

Viola understands that if you build it, they will come and he’s letting his team…build it.

I’ll ask again: Why will it be different this time?

Because of Dale Tallon. In the off-season of 2011 he went on a signing spree and inked players who are now part of the Panthers core. Players like Bergenheim, Fleischmann, Kopecky, Upshall and Campbell are cemented in the “We See Red” movement and are ideal pieces in putting a winning team together. Fast forward to this year’s free agency, he brought in Brad Boyes and steal of the season Tom Gilbert, who are the players you want on your team if you’re going to build a winner.

Oh and then there’s the recent acquisition of one Roberto Luongo.

Luongo is the first time Tallon employed the combination of business and Hockey in a transaction since the start of the new regime. It didn’t take long. What I alluded to earlier is exemplified perfectly in Roberto Luongo. He’s a fan favourite, he’ll bring fans in, and he’ll help the team win. Business and Hockey.

Luongo is an elite NHL goaltender who will give his team a chance to win every night. That is the bare minimum for a goalie and that (and more) is what he’s going bring to the table for the next few years.

The Panthers are in more than capable hands with Tallon, that much is clear. He has a plan and is sticking to it and isn’t afraid to be patient in order to achieve his goal. He’s building his team the right way.

So again: Why will it be different this time?

Because of Peter Horachek. Horachek spent 10 seasons in Nashville under Barry Trotz, the model of consistency in the NHL. If there’s one thing you want from a Panthers’ coach its consistency. Horachek brought in his philosophy of hard work, discipline, responsibility and skill to his team that has undoubtedly benefitted from this mantra. The team went from 3-9-4 or 3-13 before Horachek to 21-23-3 when he was brought in. The basic record alone shows a massive improvement in play.

Beyond the record, you can tell that by watching the games the Panthers are a “never say die” team. They don’t coast, they don’t watch, they play to the whistle and to the final buzzer. Its cliché, but it’s true. Horachek learned in Nashville that stability, strong team defense and team perseverance can go a long way to making waves in the league. Add a roster with more raw talent than he had in Nashville, and watch the sparks fly.

One more time: Why will it be different this time?

Because of the youth.

Oh boy, the youth.

The core. Barkov, Huberdeau, Kulikov, Gudbranson and Bjugstad. All players with off the charts high-end talent. All players who are growing and will continue to grow with the Panthers as the team joins the league’s elite.

Outside of that core? A crop of supremely talented, unheralded young players who you’ll fall in love with quickly. Brandon Pirri, Vincent Trocheck, Dylan Olsen, Drew Shore, Quinton Howden, Colby Robak and my personal favorite, Jimmy Hayes. This group may not have the high-end talent possessed by a Huberdeau or a Barkov, but they’re young, learning and will surprise us all.

On top of all of this? The players who aren’t pros. Among many, Ian McCoshen, Rocco Grimaldi and Mike Matheson will play NHL Hockey and lucky us they’ll be doing it with the Panthers.

These players will grow together, not just as players but as people, as professionals. That’s how a team wins and that’s how a team keeps winning.

It’s a slow burn but the train is on the right set of tracks. It just needs time to gain momentum.

So that’s what I’ve learned, from the outside looking in as a transplant Floridian with a passion for Hockey.

The Florida Panthers aren’t there yet.

But that’s a big, big “yet.”

Go Cats Go

Thanks for reading and we welcome your thoughts in the comments section below!

Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeObrand

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