From laughingstock to destination to champion: The Panthers' journey to winning the Stanley Cup (2024)

  • From laughingstock to destination to champion: The Panthers' journey to winning the Stanley Cup (1)

    Greg Wyshynski, ESPNJun 24, 2024, 11:20 PM ET

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      Greg Wyshynski is ESPN's senior NHL writer.

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Aleksander Barkov didn't just lift the Stanley Cup after defeating the Oilers in Game 7.

He lifted close to three decades of failures, embarrassments and frustration off the shoulders of the players, the fans and this franchise.

The Florida Panthers are Stanley Cup champions. Not a punch line. Not being mocked for meager attendance. Not wallowing in mediocrity, on and off the ice, as the team went 25 years between playoff series victories.

Oh, there could have been more embarrassment. Like, the most embarrassment. Florida nearly fumbled the bag against Edmonton, becoming just the third team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 Stanley Cup Final series lead to force a Game 7. They could have been the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI or Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters or the 1942 Detroit Red Wings, the only team in NHL history to lose the Stanley Cup Final after winning the first three games.

It would have been very "Florida Panthers" to have done that. But that's not who this franchise is anymore. They're not a joke. They're Stanley Cup champions.

It's wholly appropriate that Florida won the Stanley Cup against a Canadian team -- a nation that thought of the Panthers as either relocation bait or a team situated in a warmer climate in which to watch their own teams at significantly lower ticket costs; and that they eliminated the NHL-leading New York Rangers in the conference finals, the kind of esteemed Original Six team that is handed the respect the Panthers have clawed to earn.

Those teams came close to championships. The Panthers are the ones who finished the story, becoming just the third team in the past 40 years to win the Stanley Cup after losing in the Final in the previous postseason.

But perhaps most incredibly: The Florida Panthers -- the Florida Panthers! -- are now a prestige franchise in the NHL.

"It's pretty freakin' cool," defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who is second to Barkov in career games played as a Panther, said. "It wasn't easy those first few years. There was a lot of learning and growing. New GMs, new coaches ... that revolving door was tough, right? The fact that we're at this point now, where the expectation is to make the playoffs, and the expectation is to challenge for a championship, that's a really cool thing. I'm so happy to have been through it all with this franchise."

Barkov stuck with them. Ekblad stuck with them. And more South Florida fans than you'd realize stuck with them, from the rat-tossing mid-1990s to their Stanley Cup parade this season.

From laughingstock to destination to champion: The Panthers' journey to winning the Stanley Cup (2)

WHEN FLORIDA WINGER Evan Rodrigues was growing up in Toronto, the media covered only Canadian teams and winning teams.

"So I would say I probably wasn't focused on the Panthers too much," the 30-year-old said.

Fellow Ontario native Ryan Lomberg, 29, remembered how the Panthers were covered on social media.

"I remember seeing pictures of the empty arena. Seeing all the red seats and seeing maybe a couple thousand fans. Being a kid from Toronto, I remember not really understanding how the contrast [with other teams] was so extreme," he said. "It doesn't even make sense to me how it was back then. The second I got here four years ago, the fans have been amazing. We have a strong following."

Florida's attendance woes were a league-wide punch line, and the franchise did nothing to discourage it.

"In 2004, while I was at college in Orlando, I met a guy who was a Lightning fan while I was watching the finals at a bar," Panthers fan David Roth said. "I told him I was a Panthers fan, and he looked at me with a look of absolute bewilderment and just said, 'Why?' As if it were so foreign a concept to be a fan of a team in Florida other than the Lightning."

In 2006, the Panthers were averaging over 4,100 free tickets handed out for each home game. In 2008, the team introduced the "First Timer" program, in which anyone with a valid Florida driver's license could get two free tickets to a game.

In 2010, after LeBron James made his decision to take his talents to South Beach, the Panthers responded by offering season tickets in the upper deck for $6 per game, ostensibly in honor of his new uniform number with the Heat. Even that price point didn't generate enough sales -- the team announced that summer that it was going to tarp off 2,000 upper deck seats for most home games.

"When you go 25 years between playoff series wins, and then only make the playoffs a couple of times during that span, you lose a couple of generations of fans," Florida CEO Matthew Caldwell said.

Caldwell ascended to his position in 2016, having worked with owner Vinny Viola for several years.

Viola, who purchased the team in 2013, is one of a handful of majority owners during the team's turbulent history. They were founded as an expansion team by billionaire Wayne Huizenga, who initially wanted to name them the "Block Busters" in honor of his video rental chain.

He sold the franchise to pharmaceutical businessman Alan Cohen and former NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar in 2001. Cliff Viner became general partner in 2010, and made two moves that would set up Florida for later success: Hiring former Chicago Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon as head of hockey operations, and tasking him with rebuilding through the draft.

When Viola took over, the real work began to repair the Panthers' reputation. It started with the way they ticketed games.

"There was a lot of comp tickets. Just all these gimmicks to get people into the arena," Caldwell said. "That doesn't work in the long term. It really angers your season-ticket holders when you're giving out all these freebies and promotions to people off the streets."

With the team's attendance struggles came constant relocation speculation.

"There were all these rumors that we should be moved," Caldwell said. "That this new ownership group was fixing it up and trying to relocate to Quebec at the time. Those were the headwinds we had to deal with."

The chatter got so loud that owners Viola and Doug Cifu wrote a letter to fans in 2014 to assure them the Panthers weren't relocating. "Our plan is to build an organization that makes South Florida proud and to win the Stanley Cup in South Florida," they said.

But even the Panthers' own municipality was fueling relocation speculation. Broward County did a full analysis of the Panthers franchise, and more broadly on whether or not there should be a hockey team in South Florida.

Apparently, the County found enough reasons to commit to the Panthers, agreeing to a new arena lease that put Viola's team on solid financial footing.

"It felt like a miracle at the time," Caldwell said. "But I think the county looked at it like, 'Hey, this is our last shot to see if the sport works here.'"

While the team was getting its financial house in order, Caldwell's next task was trying to energize a fan base that had sunk into malaise.

"When there's a fan base that's mad and angry and looking for a savior, that's actually a little encouraging. At least you know, they're out there and if you do the right thing, they're going to come back," he said. "The problem is that our fan base had become indifferent. There was still like 3,000 or so season-ticket holders that were loyal and wanted to see this happen. But a lot of the casual fans, former season-ticket holders, had given up."

Going 24 seasons between playoff wins will do that to a franchise. But Caldwell said getting their house in order off the ice was important for what would happen on the ice over the next decade.

WHEN THE COLORADO AVALANCHE celebrated their Stanley Cup Final sweep of the Panthers in 1996, they skated through an ever-increasing pile of plastic rats.

The rat-tossing stems from a legendary moment in 1995-96 when forward Scott Mellanby used his stick to exterminate a rat in the locker room before a game. He then used the same stick to score two goals that night -- accomplishing what his teammates called "a rat trick." To this day, rubber rats are available for purchase in the official Florida team store for $5 each, with the store selling upward of 150 on game days.

The plastic rats were symbolic of what the franchise had created in its third NHL season: tradition. The Cinderella run bonded hockey fans and minted new ones. A few days after the 1996 Final, the Panthers hosted 15,000 fans at Miami Arena for a celebration of that season's success.

The hopes were high that this was the start of something special for the franchise -- then they didn't win another playoff series until 25 seasons later.

"It was brutal. There were so many years in the wilderness," Panthers fan Scott Kandell said. "We always seemed to have one or two good players with promise -- like Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and Olli Jokinen -- but ownership's answer was always to bring in older players past their prime to try to create depth getting over the hump. And it was always with terrible results."

From 1996 to 2022, the Panthers had the 25th-best regular-season points percentage (.513) and the worst playoff record (13-29) in the NHL. There were exhilarating highlights during that otherwise moribund run -- Pavel Bure's back-to-back goal-scoring titles, Roberto Luongo's Hall of Fame goaltending -- but also draft busts, young players traded too soon and a string of underwhelming teams.

"It wasn't fun being the butt of attendance jokes (you know, when those jokes were actually legitimate), never seeing a playoff series, owners literally handing tickets out for free," Panthers fan Max Horowitz said. "It was all a huge bummer to see considering the beginning of the franchise had such immediate results and promise going for it."

When Viola purchased the team, Jonathan Huberdeau (No. 3 overall, 2011), and Barkov (No. 2, 2013) had been drafted. Ekblad (No. 1) would join them in 2014.

But success didn't follow right away. There were five coaching changes. There was an internal struggle between Tallon and the "Computer Boys" -- the moniker given to the data-driven front office by some members of the Canadian media -- that bred an inconsistent philosophy and bad decisions, like letting Jonathan Marchessault slip away in the Vegas expansion draft.

At one point, Tallon was demoted as GM in 2016, then reinstated in 2017.

But it was Tallon's presence in 2019 that helped the Panthers achieve an important turning point in their path to success: luring Joel Quenneville to coach the team. Tallon had previously hired him to coach the Blackhawks.

After Chicago fired Quenneville, the Panthers swooped in with a significant financial offer and the chance to work with Tallon again. He accepted.

"He was obviously a hot commodity at the time coming out of Chicago," Caldwell said. "When we were able to land him, I think a lot of people said, 'Wow, you know, Joel can go anywhere and he picks Florida.' We certainly offered a good contract, but other big franchises wanted him, too. And then we signed Bob."

Florida handed two-time Vezina Trophy winner and free agent goalie Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets a seven-year deal, with an annual average value of $10 million, in summer 2019. In the past, the franchise struggled to attract free agents. Now, one of the top ones had chosen them.

Tallon was fired in 2020 after 10 seasons with the team.

"When we purchased the Panthers in 2013, we did so with a singular goal: to win a Stanley Cup. We have not seen our efforts come to fruition," Viola said at the time.

Florida had 23 interviews for the general manager job. Caldwell said they "scoured the Earth" to find the right candidate. They found him in Columbus: assistant GM Bill Zito, a former agent, was brought on to run the Panthers.

The team showed improvement under Quenneville, although they still couldn't advance past the first round.

And then, on Oct. 28, 2021, the Quenneville Era ended.

Quenneville resigned as head coach of the Panthers following a meeting with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about his involvement in the Blackhawks' sexual abuse case.

An investigation by the law firm Jenner & Block looked into the allegations that former video coach Brad Aldrich sexually assaulted and harassed player Kyle Beach during the team's 2010 Stanley Cup run. The investigation revealed that Quenneville was aware of the situation and took part in at least one meeting regarding the allegations during the 2010 postseason.

Quenneville had previously said he only learned of the allegations in the summer of 2021 "through the media."

Caldwell said the Panthers' forward momentum as an organization could have been "100% derailed" by Quenneville's resignation, as he had two additional seasons worth over $15 million total left on his contract.

"We had this great coach and we were blindsided by all of it. We started the season 7-0 and then the news broke," Caldwell said.

Associate coach Andrew Brunette stepped in as interim coach, and led the Panthers to their first Presidents' Trophy with the league's best record. He also coached them to their first playoff series victory since 1996, over the Washington Capitals. But after the Panthers were swept out by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round, Brunette wasn't retained.

ENTER PAUL MAURICE.

He had resigned as coach of the Winnipeg Jets in December 2021, suggesting the team needed a different voice. He wasn't sure if he'd get another head-coaching job and was content with that.

Maurice was in the midst of "four phenomenal days of fishing" when Zito called him. They started talking hockey, and immediately connected.

"I was good, right? I had given all that I thought I had to give, certainly been fortunate in the game and received far more than I gave," Maurice said. "But there's just these strange little things that meant Florida was right, that it was where I was supposed to be next."

The Panthers hired Maurice on June 22, 2022. By this time, Zito was deep into shaping a championship roster.

His first move as general manager was a stabilizing one: trading for Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist, a Stanley Cup champion who ended up being a culture-developer for Florida.

Then came banger after banger: signing Carter Verhaeghe as a free agent; trading for defenseman Brandon Montour and winger Sam Reinhart from Buffalo; getting center Sam Bennett from Calgary; snagging defenseman Gustav Forsling off waivers, a player who Maurice recently said is "the best in the world" in the style that he plays.

Then came the big swing, one month after hiring Maurice: trading Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to Calgary for star forward Matthew Tkachuk, whom Zito called a "generational talent" after the deal.

"Our build was gradual, and then when Bill got here, it's been like a turbo boost," Caldwell said.

It wasn't just that Tkachuk would be a star player for the Panthers -- carrying them to the Stanley Cup Final last season and playing a vital role in their success in this run -- but that he committed to the Panthers with a contract that runs through 2029-30.

"I think we are all very proud to be a part of that culture shift. It used to be that players would come and kind of fade away and end their career here," Lomberg said. "Now it's where the big dogs like Matt Tkachuk want to come and want to establish themselves and build that legacy. So we're exceptionally lucky to be a part of the Florida Panthers and extremely proud to be where we're at."

For years, a laughingstock. Then suddenly a destination. Now, finally, a champion.

From laughingstock to destination to champion: The Panthers' journey to winning the Stanley Cup (3)play

Tkachuk: 'It's not a dream, it's reality'

Matthew Tkachuk discusses how it feels to be a Stanley Cup champion following the Florida Panthers' 2-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers.

ZITO REMEMBERED THE FEELING after the 2023 Stanley Cup Final.

The Panthers had a miraculous run through the Eastern Conference: shocking the Bruins, rolling through the Maple Leafs and then sweeping the Hurricanes. But injuries and ineffectiveness had them fall short to the Golden Knights, losing in five games.

"I can tell you how rotten it felt going home empty-handed. How everyone had that feeling in their stomach," Zito said.

That dissatisfaction was reflected in training camp. "Paul's camps are really intense and a lot of hard work. You can't quit at any time," Barkov said.

Tkachuk's one-word assessment: "Brutal."

But Maurice said that it was about the players coming to camp with an all-business attitude. It was no longer about hoping to make a Stanley Cup Final -- it was expected to be there again, and just about figuring out the best path to get there.

"We have that bitter taste in our mouth still, and our mindset this year is completely different than last year, when it was a little bit 'happy to be there and enjoy the experience,'" Bennett said. "This year, it's all business. We have one goal in mind, and we're not going to be satisfied until we accomplish that."

One critical change in their mindset came because of injury: Ekblad and Montour missed the start of the season after surgery. That encouraged the team's leadership to rededicate the Panthers defensively. They went from 21st in the league last season in goals-against average (3.32) to tied for first this season (2.41).

The work they did in the playoffs against star opponents reflected that commitment. Through Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Panthers didn't give up a 5-on-5 goal to McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Zach Hyman; nor did they give up one in prior playoff series to Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, David Pastrnak or Nikita Kucherov.

"For as many offensive guys we have on the team, we're a defense-first team," Tkachuk said.

The constant in their defensive effort was Bobrovsky.

"It's phenomenal just to watch him work every day. He makes all these saves, and he's always in the right position it seems like during the games, and that's not by accident. It's because of how dialed in he is in his preparation," trade deadline acquisition Kyle Okposo said. "I think that's been the most fun part for me: just watching him every day and how it's translating to the games."

There was a time when Bobrovsky was seen as an overhyped, overpaid netminder who was crushed by the weight of his contract. Now, he's Playoff Bob.

Perceptions change. Just ask the Florida Panthers.

From laughingstock to destination to champion: The Panthers' journey to winning the Stanley Cup (4)play

Sergei Bobrovsky denies Connor McDavid in front of net

Connor McDavid finds himself one-on-one with Sergei Bobrovsky, but the Panthers' goalie snuffs out the danger with a point-blank save.

ZITO STARTED TO NOTICE the increased interest in the Panthers after last season.

"When I walked the dog the first couple years, no one said a word to me," he said during a media availability with Maurice. "Now the neighbor sort of knows who I am."

"They stopped calling the cops on you?" the coach asked, deadpan.

"Yeah," Zito said, laughing. "And you're starting to see more and more Panthers stuff. It's wonderful. It's really exciting for the game."

This is the moment for which Viola, Caldwell and the Panthers' ownership team have been aiming. This is the moment toward which Zito has been building. Florida winning the Stanley Cup is the culmination of their work to change the perception, vibe, personnel and success of this team.

"It's really nothing short of ... well, 'thrilling' is probably a little too much," Zito said. "But as someone who grew up loving the game and never having played in the NHL, to see the fans and to hear from your friends -- 'Oh, I went there and I couldn't get in because it was packed' -- is amazing."

Barkov has waited his entire career for it.

"It's the best time of my life right now. I'm enjoying every single day and making these playoff runs," he said.

The Panthers were 29-45-8 in Barkov's first season. They had two different coaches. Their leading scorer was Nick Bjugstad.

A decade later, they're Stanley Cup champions.

"There's a cycle in the NHL. That's true of the great franchises, too. We used to go into Chicago and there's 5,200 people in that building. Detroit for a while had to give away a car a game to get people to the game," he said. "Some of these phenomenal franchises. But they have to be built, and then I guess they have to be maintained. We're hopeful we're building it now."

Cup in hand, the Panthers are now faced with an equally challenging task: sustaining success.

"In sports, everything's about consistency," Caldwell said. "If you just have one good season, it's great. But the market's smart. They want to make sure that you're going to be good for a couple of years, you know?"

Panthers fan Jeffrey Alterman agrees.

"You know South Florida's sports reputation," he said. "We are a winning town. If you're winning, we are coming. So they have to keep winning."

Rodrigues feels the franchise has turned the corner. It's now a destination for players and will continue to be one.

"I think if you get the right people involved, and you build a place where people want to come, they'll come," he said. "Look at our new practice facility. It's state-of-the-art. If you're between a couple places and you come down here and look at our facility and then you're in South Florida, it's hard to say no to. I've really enjoyed it this year, and I won't take away, though, that winning is probably the biggest thing."

The Panthers have seen how fleeting success can be in the NHL, going 25 years between the rat-tossing euphoria of their 1996 Stanley Cup Final run to their next playoff victory. In between, they squandered momentum, wasted good faith and alienated generations of fans.

But they say it'll be different this time.

"Winning it is the pinnacle of everything we've been talking about over the last 10 years. I think we've already established a lot of credibility, but winning the actual Cup the first time in franchise history is the icing on the cake on everything that we've been building here," Caldwell said. "We've always been very clear that we won't stop until we bring a Stanley Cup to our fans. And we're not going to stop after that, either."

From laughingstock to destination to champion: The Panthers' journey to winning the Stanley Cup (2024)

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