The anticipated crowd for tonight’s home opener of the Florida Panthers and their Eastern Conference championship banner unveiling will be markedly different than the attendees at that first sold-out home opener at Miami Arena 30 years ago.
Unlike the initial opener, today’s crowd has more than a generation of experience as hockey fans.
For many who attended the 1993 opener, that game was their first exposure to the NHL.
With the exception of snowbirds and transplants, most of the early followers of South Florida’s hockey team was as a novelty — one played in that cozy arena just outside of downtown Miami.
Many could not grasp the enormity of the achievements of the early team as the expansion Panthers narrowly missed the playoffs in their first two seasons before making an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Final in only their third.
Still, the region fell in love with that scrappy bunch.
Expansion teams of that era did not have the benefit of a user-friendly expansion draft which helped make the Vegas Golden Knights and the Seattle Kraken so competitive in their early years.
Then again, original owner H. Wayne Huizenga only paid a paltry $50 million for the franchise as compared to the $650 million price tag for the Seattle franchise.
You get a little extra consideration for that kind of money.
The first followers of the Panthers were unfamiliar with terms like: Cap crunch, buyout or Collective Bargaining Agreement.
From experience in other pro sports, however, they did realize they were seeing a bunch of castoffs acquired in a rigged expansion draft.
The current crowd fully understands the sacrifices and grit required to make a deep playoff run as well as the residual effects.
With a relatively short off-season the injuries are often not fully healed when training camp starts — a big reason why consecutive Cup wins are rare.
The current Panthers are aware of this phenomenon, starting the season without Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour.
Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett and Eetu Luostarinen were pretty banged up in last season’s playoffs but are ready, save for Bennett who suffered a new injury in the preseason.
Of players who are no longer with the Panthers, Radko Gudas also played through injuries during the playoffs.
Way back in the Panthers’ infancy, I interviewed the late Bill Torrey who was the team’s first president as well as goalie John Vanbiesbrouck — Florida hockey’s first genuine star — for a magazine piece.
“We brought seven players down for a week in August and took them all around,’’ Torrey recalled of that first summer selling hockey in the tropics.
“John Vanbiesbrouck, Brian Skrudland and the rest of them did a great job. We went to the malls and put on street demonstrations. It was 99 degrees out there and they were in the street stickhandling and demonstrating the game. It made a big impression.”
The group signed autographs, conducted clinics and spoke patiently with potential new fans.
The delegation answered questions from ‘What’s the difference between icing and offside?’ to ‘How many players are on the ice?’
The current home of the Panthers has about 5,000 more seats than the old Miami Arena — which was only built in 1988 yet was already obsolete the day it opened — and plenty more amenities.
While the team still employs such marketing tools as T-shirt tosses and their mascot Stanley C. Panther, selling the game itself does not need to be a priority.
Brochures, pocket guides explaining the rules and terminology of the game are no longer necessary.
As the Panthers grew, youth hockey programs supported by the team have grown exponentially as South Florida has produced numerous NHL players including Shane Gostesbehere and Jakob Chychrun.
A few years ago, Chase Priskie suited up for the Panthers. He was born in Pembroke Pines and went to his first game at Miami Arena as an infant.
Yes, as the past few seasons have shown, this is a good hockey market.
Follow Alan Greenberg on Twitter @thegovman
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.