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NHL Champions: Florida Panthers Overcome Decades of Frustration

NHL Champions: Florida Panthers Overcome Decades of Frustration – Aleksander Barkov didn’t just hoist the Stanley Cup after a thrilling Game 7 victory over the Oilers. He lifted nearly three decades of setbacks, humiliation, and frustration off the backs of the players, fans, and the entire Florida Panthers organization.

The Florida Panthers are Stanley Cup champions. No longer the punchline for jokes about poor attendance or mediocrity, this team went 25 years between playoff series victories before changing their narrative.

The journey to the championship wasn’t without its challenges. Nearly blowing a 3-0 series lead to Edmonton, the Panthers risked becoming one of the rare teams to lose a Stanley Cup Final after leading by three games.

They could have joined the infamous ranks of the 1942 Detroit Red Wings, who are the only team in NHL history to lose the final after winning the first three games. But this time, the Panthers defied expectations and claimed the title.

Winning against a Canadian team is particularly poignant for the Panthers. Canada, where hockey is akin to a national religion, often viewed the Panthers as a team that could be relocated or as a warm-weather novelty. Defeating the New York Rangers, an Original Six team revered in the hockey community, was a statement in itself. These victories validated the Panthers’ hard-earned respect and established their place among NHL elites.

Remarkably, the Panthers’ triumph marks them as a prestigious franchise in the NHL. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad, second to Barkov in career games played with Florida, reflected on the journey. “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,” he said. “The fact that we’re now expected to make the playoffs and challenge for a championship is incredible. I’m so happy to have been through it all with this franchise.”

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Barkov and Ekblad’s loyalty paid off. Fans who supported the team from the mid-1990s rat-tossing era to the recent Stanley Cup parade saw their faith rewarded.

Growing up in Toronto, Florida winger Evan Rodrigues barely noticed the Panthers due to the media’s focus on Canadian teams and winners. Fellow Ontarian Ryan Lomberg recalled the Panthers’ empty arenas as a stark contrast to other teams. “Seeing all the red seats and maybe a couple thousand fans… it didn’t make sense to me,” he said. “But when I got here four years ago, the fans were amazing. We have a strong following now.”

Florida’s attendance woes were a running joke, and the franchise did little to counter it. At one point, the team handed out thousands of free tickets per game. Promotions like the “First Timer” program in 2008, which gave free tickets to Florida residents, underscored the struggle to fill seats.

The franchise’s low points included a constant threat of relocation. Rumors swirled that new ownership aimed to move the team, prompting owners Vinny Viola and Doug Cifu to assure fans in 2014 that the Panthers were committed to South Florida. Broward County’s decision to agree to a new arena lease was a turning point, giving the team financial stability and another shot at proving hockey could thrive in Florida.

Caldwell and Viola faced the challenge of reinvigorating a fan base that had become indifferent after years of disappointment. “When there’s a mad and angry fan base, it’s encouraging because at least they care. Indifference is worse,” Caldwell said. The off-ice stability was crucial for on-ice success.

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The Panthers’ Cinderella run in the 1995-96 season, marked by the rat-tossing tradition, had bonded hockey fans and created hope. But after losing the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, the team didn’t win another playoff series for 25 years. From 1996 to 2022, the Panthers had the 25th-best regular-season points percentage and the worst playoff record in the NHL. Despite highlights like Pavel Bure’s goal-scoring titles and Roberto Luongo’s Hall of Fame goaltending, the team struggled with poor drafts and inconsistent performance.

When Viola purchased the team, key players like Jonathan Huberdeau and Barkov had already been drafted, and Ekblad joined in 2014. However, success was slow. The team went through five coaching changes and internal struggles, including a conflict between GM Dale Tallon and a data-driven front office. Tallon was pivotal in hiring Joel Quenneville as coach in 2019, a move that signaled the team’s intent to compete seriously.

Quenneville’s resignation in 2021, due to his involvement in the Blackhawks’ sexual abuse scandal, was a major setback. Associate coach Andrew Brunette led the team to a Presidents’ Trophy, but they fell short in the playoffs. Enter Paul Maurice, hired in June 2022. His hiring, along with GM Bill Zito’s strategic roster moves, including trading for star forward Matthew Tkachuk, transformed the team.

Zito’s acquisitions, like signing Carter Verhaeghe and trading for players like Sam Reinhart, reshaped the Panthers. Tkachuk’s arrival was a turning point, not only for his on-ice performance but also his long-term commitment to the team.

The Panthers’ defensive improvements, led by goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, were crucial in their playoff success. The team’s commitment to defense-first play paid off, particularly in their impressive containment of star opponents.

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Zito noticed the increased fan engagement after the 2023 Stanley Cup Final, reflecting the franchise’s newfound respect. The Panthers’ journey from a laughingstock to champions is a testament to the work of Viola, Caldwell, and the entire organization.

Barkov, who endured the team’s struggles, expressed his joy in the team’s success. “It’s the best time of my life right now,” he said. The Panthers’ rise from 29-45-8 in Barkov’s first season to Stanley Cup champions highlights the remarkable turnaround.

The challenge now is sustaining this success. Panthers fan Jeffrey Alterman emphasized that South Florida is a winning town, and continued success is key to maintaining fan support. For players like Evan Rodrigues, the Panthers have become a desirable destination, thanks to their state-of-the-art facilities and winning culture.

The Panthers have experienced how fleeting success can be, but this time, they are determined to maintain their momentum. “Winning the Stanley Cup is the pinnacle of everything we’ve been building here,” Caldwell said. “And we’re not going to stop after that, either.”

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