It may not seem that long ago — or perhaps it does — but 28 years ago today, the National Hockey League officially introduced itself to South Florida as the Panthers played their first regular season game at Miami Arena.
The expansion Florida Panthers played their first three games away from Overtown, going 1-1-1 in those games.
Florida’s first points came in its first game, a 4-4 tie against Eddie Belfour and the Blackhawks at Chicago Stadium on Oct. 6, 1993.
After a loss in St. Louis, the Panthers got their first win on Oct. 9 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Thunderdome — which y’all now know as Tropicana Field, the baseball home of the Tampa Bay Rays.
So, the Panthers were riding high coming back to Miami and a sold-out crowd of 14,372 (a number which would pop up throughout the team’s five seasons there) greeted them at Miami Arena.
The Panthers organization employed many who helped successfully kick off the Marlins a few months prior so they pulled out all the stops.
Before the first game, the team had an elaborate 30-minute ceremony which included indoor fireworks, a laser show, a dance sequence and mascot Stanley C. Panthers coming out of the back of a stretch limo that was pulled onto the ice.
There was even a real, live Florida panther on hand.
Yeah, it was quite a show.
The Panthers ended up losing their home debut 2-1 with future Panther Martin Straka and Joe Mullen scoring for the Pens. A future Florida player named Jaromir Jagr was on that Pittsburgh team as well.
With 8:28 left in the game, Scott Mellanby — who would better become known when he killed a rat in the Miami Arena dressing room in 1995 — scored the Panthers first goal on home ice.
John Vanbiesbrouck ended up making 33 saves in the loss, the opening game coming not long after he did a photo shoot on a beach in all of his gear.
“When I went to Florida, I thought it was going to be a beach ride, a golf ride,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “It became a real hockey ride. The environment that was created by management set a good path. That led to a good culture.
“We were scared to death of being embarrassed every night. When you are afraid of being embarrassed, you’re going to play a little harder. It became less about the beach and more about proving you could play in a place that was a little south of the border. We played with some fear.”
As odd as it looked to see a hockey player scramble through the sand, when Vanbiesbrouck put on a pair of sunglasses, it actually looked kind of natural.
Hockey in the tropics?
“We just couldn’t believe we would rehash games on South Beach,” Brian Skrudland, the first captain in franchise history said a few years back when the team celebrated its 25th anniversary.
“What a neat place to play hockey. Everything was different here. We had so much fun and there are so many great memories of those days.”
That Florida team finished with an expansion record for wins (33), points (83) and winning percentage (.494). Vegas would surpass all of those records in 2017-18.
The expansion Panthers fell a point shy of the playoffs after going 2-5-6 down the stretch.
A win on opening night at Miami Arena may have made a difference.
“I had never been on an expansion team in a new market before,” said Mike Foligno, a 15-year NHL veteran who joined the team after the opener in a trade with Toronto.
“We didn’t have the most talented team, but we played hard every game. That night we missed the playoffs was the most disappointed I had ever been.”
The 2021-22 Panthers, a team with legitimate Stanley Cup hopes, kick off their new season Thursday night at FLA Live Arena against the Penguins.