Remember the year 2000? How different things were at that year of optimism as we turned the corner to a new millennium? Seems like a different world now, doesn’t it?
The spring of that year we experienced the ILOVEYOU computer virus spreading like an online wildfire, Al Gore won the Democrats primary, and Vladimir Putin emerged as Russia’s new leader. Pope John Paul II was still alive, the twin towers were equally standing tall in New York, and, most unlikely of all...the Florida Panthers made the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Those were different times. Today’s viruses don’t claim to love, the Pope has gone to meet his maker, Al Gore didn’t become President (despite winning the election), the twin towers have fallen, and terrorism has struck fear into the hearts and minds of those that previously couldn’t point out Afghanistan on a map.
And well, some things don’t change I guess. Vladimir Putin is still all-powerful in the Kremlin, there is a heavenly anointed Pope in Rome, and most crucially, the Florida Panthers still haven’t won a postseason contest since 1997 (when the Cats won one of five games versus the NY Rangers).
Some habits are apparently hard to break. This was clearly demonstrated at the run-in of last season’s mad rush for a playoff berth.
The Panthers entered this 2008-09 playoff race in a great position; they were the hottest team in the NHL at the beginning of 2009, and then, just after the trade deadline, the wheels fell off and the Cats looked increasingly tame as the competition grew fiercer at the back end of March. In the end, Florida came close, with the same amount of points as Montreal in eighth spot (beaten by the Habs on head-to-head record), but could still not break the post-season hoodoo.
Since that spring of 2000, which seems more distant than a mere eight years ago, the Florida Panthers have struggled. Looking at the following trend of the Cats in the Southeastern Division, often seen as the weakest division in the league, doesn’t exactly fill fans with much hope of ever experiencing their share of NHL success; third, fourth, fourth, fourth, fourth, fourth, third, and third.
Mediocrities abound and false hope trickling down from a seeming desperate management team has turned many fans away in disgust.
And yes, there was once a hockey fan base here in South Florida, as hard as that might be to imagine these days. However, a plentiful harvest of continued failure throughout the years is hard to tolerate in any sports market, not least in one where hockey culture does not exactly thrive naturally. It needs careful attention and a constant sense of excitement to flourish in these unfruitful swamplands, and while it did receive this in its budding years of the mid '90s, it has since been left out to dry.
No surprise then that the nascent Panther fan base has shrunk and success seems ever elusive, even for those that somehow continue to persist. It is a dark picture, indeed, when you look at it. Yet, you wouldn’t know it when reading the latest “State of the Team” interview with President and COO Michael Yormark.
On the Florida Panthers official website he goes on to assure fans that, “At the end of the day, when you look at our team and where we are as a franchise, I think we finally have our act together. I think we have a product on the ice our fans are going to be excited about. […] We need to live up to expectations, and I think we will."
To the unacquainted ear, this may sound like a refreshingly candid sense of optimism, and it may very well be, but to the hardened Panthers fans it sounds like yet more empty assurances that don’t look any closer to being realized than they were eight years ago. Some would even go as far as calling it a slap in the face: “How naïve do you think we are?”
And yet, there is hope.
“Many of the great achievements of the world were accomplished by tired and discouraged men who kept on working,” as a quote by an unknown author goes, and perseverance is a trait that can be cultivated. In the talented head coach Peter DeBoer, we have the right man for that job, and with his rookie season under the belt, he should be in a better position to take us one step further.
The GM position has also been filled with Randy Sexton—bringing some much needed stability to the club—and there are promising youngsters, good new signings, and a core of hardened veterans on the roster. New faces such as defensemen Jordan Leopold and Dennis Seidenberg can help bring some stability in the back end.
This while a couple of centermen in Steven Reinprecht and Dominic Moore should free up Nathan Horton to return to his preferred right wing position. There is at the same time, though, a lack of top-notch talent on the top lines and Jay Bouwmeester’s absence will be keenly felt, despite good overall squad depth.
I think Panthers fans today are more cautious than most in their assessment of the team’s chances of playing in upcoming postseason contests. A sense of "wait and see" seems to be prevailing, and perhaps that is what Yormark should exude as well, seeing as the last thing we need is yet more false hope and crushing realities.
This time, we want to stay as grounded as possible and instead let the players induce us into cautious optimism through their performances on the ice, not through tuxedo pledges from the management.
If history has taught us Panthers fans anything, it is not listen to those wide assertions of sanguinity that the organization vainly hopes will disguise our present situation—and that there is still a long way this club has to climb in its uphill clamber to that elusive success.
It is time for the ever "promising" players to come of age, the individuals to play like a coherent collective, and to finally deliver that which has been so frequently talked about since that year of 2000, but never realized: re-awakening South Florida’s desire (which they didn’t even know they had) to watch toothless Canadians fight in a gladiatorial combat upon an artificial pond of ice—that is no mean feat—yet, it can be done!
So, here I bypass management promises and call out directly to the team that is the Florida Panthers—it’s players, backroom staff and coaches—a call to arms:
Panthers—make a stand! And, in the process, make us understand why we fans hopelessly keep believing in that which seems out of our grasp.
Remind us why we keep driving out to the swamps to watch grown men with sticks and skates on ice.
Go on, make us reminisce about the "Year of the Rat," and at the same time, rattle some conservative hockey fans’ square northern cages, and most of all, make us hope once again, despite having hoped in vain so many times before. Let us be exalted to the realms of hockey elation!
Let's not just talk about making the post-season; let's do it!