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Dave Hyde: Welcome to the center of the hockey universe as Stanley Cup Final begins

Dave Hyde, South Florida Sun-Sentinel on

Published in Hockey

SUNRISE, Fla. — There it stood, shimmering in all its reflective silver. The Stanley Cup.

“I get chills just looking at it,’’ Panthers forward Ryan Lomberg said, staring at it.

Hockey’s championship trophy sat Friday on an Amerant Bank Arena concourse as Panthers players did Media Day interviews on the eve of the Stanley Cup Final.

“I’ve got to quit looking at it,’’ Lomberg said.

For most of South Florida’s sports history, the only cup pertaining to June has involved a white ball and flagstick.

Starting with Game 1 Saturday night against Edmonton, this is the epicenter of the hockey world for the second straight June, with a series stuffed with everything for a hockey aficionado: two alter-ego markets geographically and hockey-wise; an elegantly violent Panthers team that’s a model of talent and depth; and the best player in the game, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, needing a championship to cement himself as an all-time great. That’s non-negotiable in the hockey world.

More personal is Panthers coach Paul Maurice feeling the need to certify his long coaching career with a Stanley Cup title.

“I need to win one,’’ said Maurice, 57. “I’m 30 years into this thing. I wouldn’t mind winning one.”

Finally, this series has the perfect player to symbolize where this Panthers franchise once was and appreciate its hard climb to the top. Edmonton forward Zach Hyman was the Panthers’ fifth-round pick in 2010. He was so much this team needed. A big scorer. A young talent. Hyman was even Jewish, to tap that South Florida market.

He declined to sign with the Panthers after they wanted to put him in the minor leagues rather than their NHL team. Hyman landed in Toronto, which traded him to Edmonton, where he scored 54 goals this season, three goals behind Florida’s Sam Reinhart.

“It didn’t work out,’’ Hyman said of the Panthers.

For a quarter-century, the Panthers always found the banana peel. Go through the years. General manager Rick Dudley once locked coach Mike Keenan out of practice. Coach Gerard Gallant was fired after a game in Carolina and had to hail a taxi to get home. They once lost two goalies overnight due to filing paperwork wrong with the league.

“Last man standing,’’ goalie Roberto Luongo greeted reporters the next day.

 

When star prospect Alex Ovechkin was born two days after the draft’s age limit in 2003, Panthers owner Alan Cohen insisted Ovechkin was of legal age because of four days lost to his life’s Leap Years. The Panthers announced Ovechkin as their first-round pick. The league denied the pick. They tried again in the ninth round. The league shut off the team’s microphone. You can’t make this stuff up. (Ovechkin was taken No. 1 the following year by Washington).

As the product withered with 25 years without a playoff series win, so did local interest. Doug MacLean, years after coaching the 1996 Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final, asked if the television in a bar near could turn to the Panthers game.

“The NFL doesn’t play today,’’ the bartender said, referring to the Carolina Panthers.

Hockey wasn’t a consideration outside the Sunrise arena. If you mentioned “forecheck” in South Florida, people wondered if it involved an interest-bearing account.

“I didn’t get recognized outside the rink for my first five years on this team,’’ veteran defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “Now, you know, we have the new practice facility in Fort Lauderdale, and are doing some marketing so it’s different.”

That’s why this second straight postseason run by the Panthers means more than just a chance for a title.

“There are challenges in every market, certainly spend time up north and understand the challenges in the northern market with the volume (of fans),’’ Maurice said. “But there’s also great challenges in a market where you’re trying to drive that volume. We need people to come.”

They’re coming to the point Game 1 seats were running Friday afternoon from $350 in the upper deck to $2,175 by the ice, according to vividseats.com. They’re hoping to see the Panthers win the title they lost to Vegas in the Final last season.

“Early on, you don’t think it’s possible to get here, right?” defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “You never think it’s possible. But once you get here once, you realize that it’s a full team group effort. You need every single player playing at the absolute top of their game.

“You need bounces. You need luck. You need to play a certain style of game that we’ve learned to play that we definitely didn’t in the first six years of my career.”

There sat the reward Friday. Some team will carry the Stanley Cup around the ice after this series. Lomberg looked at it Friday and felt something only an involved player can.

“Chills,’’ he said.


©2024 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Visit sun-sentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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