SUNRISE — It has been some time since the Florida Panthers invited their fans over to mingle, have a bite to eat, pose for photos and, well, just hang out.
On Sunday, for the first time since the pandemic, the team brought their season ticket holders to the arena on an off day to celebrate each other with what they called ‘Pantherfest.’
It was, by all accounts, a rousing success.
In years past, the Panthers have invited their season ticket holders to the arena or the IceDen for an autograph session where players lined up behind an endless line of folding tables, signing jerseys and photos while posing for the occasional photo.
On Sunday, however, the team went all out with a new concept — for them — in which the players went to different stations inside and outside of the arena to meet with their fans, pose for pictures and share each others company.
Even though there were thousands roaming around the arena grounds enjoying the various photo stations inside and the carnival attractions outside, this felt extremely well planned out — and personal.
Although the team discouraged fans from getting autographs so everyone could get through the photo lines, players certainly obliged when asked especially out on the concourse where things were definitely more laid back.
“We are having a great time,” said Eddie Krakauer, who attended the event with his wife Elana and their two young daughters Alex and Evie.
“It is nice to be around the players again. We had to take a break from these kind of events due to some circumstances which were out of everyone’s control. But the team has really off the past few years. I have been a fan since I got here in 2000 and we’re having a great time. These players are great. They are kind, they are nice and they are really taking their time for everyone.”
The Krakauer’s spent a little bit of time with new defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson before getting a group selfie with Evan Rodrigues.
Along with the likes of Dmitry Kulikov, Nick Cousins, Sergei Bobrovsky, Ryan Lomberg, Steven Lorentz and Anthony Stolarz, Ekman-Larsson seemed to be having as much fun as the fans were.
Jonah Gadjovich, who is quickly becoming a fan favorite, was even spotted getting into a fight pose for a photo.
While these fan events can sometimes wear on the players as they dutifully go about the business of engaging, it can honestly be said all of them seemed to have a blast on Sunday.
Especially when it came to interacting with the youngest fans in attendance.
Whether it was posing for pictures on the bench, in the penalty box or with the team’s new custom ‘Fanboni’ — or even just playing carnival games out in the sunshine — the players truly seemed to enjoy their time.
“It is a lot of fun to see the families and the kids and all of the fans, really,” Ekman-Larsson said while waiting for another photo session inside the Amerant Vault where fans were treated to food and drink.
“It is nice to be able to help put a smile on their face and kind of just get a chance to chat with them all. They mean so much to us when we’re down on the ice playing the game, it really makes a difference hearing all of them cheer for us and cheering us on. This is a great chance for them to come out and for us to all meet each other in a nice setting. Sometimes we get to share a wave with them but now we get to talk and really meet.
“I always enjoy doing these sort of things, it is nice for us and nice for the fans. You can tell they are enjoying themselves.”
Kulikov had been with the Panthers since being a first-round draft pick in 2009 until he was traded away in 2016.
He returned to Florida this summer and, when off the ice, the smile does not seem to leave his face.
On Sunday, Kulikov was inundated by fans coming up to say how happy they were he was back — and he responded in kind.
“There really has been a lot of appreciation from all of the fans I have run into,” Kulikov said. “They keep coming up and saying ‘welcome back’ and telling me how happy they are to have me back. It’s a great feeling. This has really, really been a lot of fun.”
For Ekman-Larsson, who came to the Panthers after spending the start of his career in Arizona before moving to Vancouver, making sure a fan gets a personal interaction means something.
At least it did to him when he was younger.
“I think it is important to show your appreciation to the fans for showing up whether it is the good times or the bad,’’ Ekman-Larsson said.
“I always look back on when I was a kid, running around my hometown and watching my hometown team. If it is just a hello, or a ‘hey there,’ or if you give someone a stick, it means so much to a person. I always remember that when I do these things. And I know the team takes a lot of pride in doing these sort of events. It is fun for all of us.’’
DALLAS STARS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
- National TV/Streaming: TNT, HBO Max
- Radio: WAXY 790-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
- Last Season: Dallas won 2-0
- This Season — At Florida: Wednesday. At Dallas: March 12.
- All-time Regular Season Series: Florida leads 24-21-2, 3 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Friday vs. Pittsburgh, 7 p.m.