SUNRISE — The newly renamed Amerant Bank Arena was a hive of activity Wednesday as scores of workers were busy putting finishing touches on the joint before the Florida Panthers play their home opener there tonight.
“We are so jacked up to play in front of our fans,’’ Matthew Tkachuk said. “There is nothing better in my opinion. It has been a long time coming.’’
Signage reflecting the arena’s latest name has been put up in most places including the front and back of the building, on the two marquee boards and they even replaced the sun-faded parking signs around the perimeters.
The new banner honoring the 2022-23 NHL Eastern Conference champions is ready to be dropped from the rafters.
“We want the other banner but it is going to be a fun night for sure,” captain Sasha Barkov said.
“It always exciting to have a home opener but this one is going to be even better. The past four, five years we have had great crowds and terrific support. It has been a big advantage for us. They helped us so much. The atmosphere when this place is full, is amazing.”
The Panthers have collectively talked about putting last season’s incredible run to the Stanley Cup Final behind them for the past few weeks — but they’ll put those ideas behind tonight when they get to celebrate what was with a capacity home crowd.
There will be LED batons and commemorative coins handed out to fans, special guests in the building a pregame ceremony where their second Eastern Conference banner is unfurled.
The original banner from 1996, which once hung in Miami Arena before being brought north when this building opened in 1998, has been replaced so the rafters look more uniform.
Regardless, Thursday night is one fans and players alike have been anticipating for some time.
The Panthers opened with three games on the road and are excited about being back — and feeling the love they got throughout the playoffs last spring.
“It is going to be cool to see the banner and it is always fun to play games here at home,” Anton Lundell said. “It is a great memory, playing those playoff games here because the atmosphere was unreal. I had never seen anything like it. We played in some big cities: Boston, Toronto and even Vegas. Our arena is probably one of the three biggest in the league and it was amazing to witness that sea of red and how excited our fans were to see us.”
Added Ryan Lomberg: “It was amazing. Since the first day I got here, I thought the fans in Florida were under-appreciated. We have way more support than people think and it was great seeing our fans and our community put on that stage. It kind of let the rest of the hockey world know we have a lot of fans here. We’re excited to play in front of them again. We can’t wait to get out there.”
The Panthers have a number of new faces on the ice but will be going against some familiar ones tonight.
It is not lost on anyone that the Toronto Maple Leafs are in town for the big home opener — the same team Florida thrashed in the Eastern Conference semifinals as part of their playoff run.
Remember how Toronto fans gathered in Maple Leaf Square during the first round and chanted ‘We Want Florida!’ as the Leafs knocked off the Lightning?
Well, the Leafs — or, at least, their rabid supporters — got their wish.
There are even ‘We Want Florida!’ t-shirts on sale at the team store for $20 to commemorate it.
Expect to see a few of those in the crowd tonight and the foreseeable future.
“I have been looking forward to this one for a few months now,” Tkachuk said. “The energy they left us with in the playoffs is something I will remember forever. As far away as that was for us, we get to bring some positive energy from the road trip back here for them and we’re hoping they are as good as they were last year. …
“It is a sign of the success we had last year and is no little feat; that was definitely big-time for us to keep moving the needle with this organization and keep having success. We know what the last piece of the puzzle is after last year and want to finish the job.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS @ FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida/ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last Season: Toronto won Regular Season Series 3-1; Florida won Eastern Conference Semifinals 4-1
- This season: @Florida, Thursday/April 16; @Toronto, Nov. 28/April 1
- All-time Regular Season Series: Toronto leads 48-36-7, 7 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Saturday vs. Vancouver Canucks, 7 p.m.