FORT LAUDERDALE — While a couple of his Florida Panthers teammates rode their golf carts to practice for the first time Friday morning, Sasha Barkov came a more traditional way.
It was a different route from what he had grown accustomed to.
“I have had the same drive for 10 years,’’ Barkov said, “and I was excited to come in.”
Yes, Friday really was like the first day at a new school for the Panthers as they held their first practice at the Baptist Health Iceplex at War Memorial outside downtown Fort Lauderdale.
The complex is not yet completed, however, as construction workers in hard hats strolled through the building as the team hit brand new ice for the first time.
Coach Paul Maurice was not concerned with all the new bells and whistles — although his players certainly dug them — he just wanted to make sure the ice made the grade.
“This place is terrific and has all the highest quality equipment you can find for a professional sports team,” Maurice said. “But, it’s the ice. At the end of the day, that’s the key. And it was hard. It is miles better than I could have hoped for the first skate. It was good.”
This facility on the west side of Holiday Park is going to become the main home of the Panthers in the coming months.
Sure, games are going to still be held in Sunrise, but soon, all practices and morning skates will shift to Fort Lauderdale. Training camp, development camp, everything will be in Fort Lauderdale.
General manager Bill Zito even wants his players to feel so at home in the spacious and plush lounges that they come over in their off time to watch games or cook food on the outdoor grills he had installed.
“That space is for the players,” Zito said. “The goal was to create an environment players could come in and feel comfortable to socialize amongst themselves. They can prepare meals, they can watch games outside. There are more treats on the horizon that will make that space second-to-none in the league.”
Dmitry Kulikov was with the Panthers when the new addition to the IceDen in Coral Springs opened and that was a big move for the franchise at the time.
Not only did that complex add a third sheet of ice, but it also added a real training side for the Panthers — one that they did not necessarily outgrow.
While the IceDen is more than serviceable, with NHL teams around North America building bigger and better facilities for their players, the Panthers took notice.
“I thought it was nice, but, apparently not anymore,” Kulikov said with a grin. “But this is really nice and you could not ask for anything more. Just walking around this place is impressive. What else do we need? The gym is huge, there is a huge recovery room. Our pool has a treadmill in it.
“And, honestly, no one expected anything less. From all the talk we heard about this place and the planning that went into it, we knew it had to be this.”
The building is close enough for most players to come and enjoy the amenities whenever they like — and, with 24-hour access, they can do just that.
With so many players and coaches living nearby, a few players such as Matthew Tkachuk, Aaron Ekblad and Carter Verhaeghe, rolled in from their homes off Las Olas in custom golf carts.
“I would love to be a golf cart salesman today,’’ Zito joked. “I know a couple of players are headed to the depot to buy one.’’
Others came to practice in other ways.
Maurice, for instance, walked to work.
“I took the golf cart and was one of a handful of guys who did that,” Tkachuk said. “We have a very unique players’ parking lot out there. There are a couple of cars, some e-bikes, some golf carts. We have a little bit of everything. And I think it is going to evolve as we get going here.”
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS @ FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Saturday, 3 p.m.
- Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, WPOW 96.5 FM2, WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
- Season Series — At Florida: Saturday. At Vegas: Jan. 4.
- Last Regular Season: Even 1-1
- All-time Regular Season Series: Golden Knights lead 6-3-1
- Postseason History — 2023 Stanley Cup Final: Vegas d. Florida 4-1
- Up Next for the Florida Panthers: Wednesday at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m.