The Florida Panthers are winning, both on and off the ice

By Carol Schram

Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, had a message for Vincent Viola when Viola purchased the Florida Panthers in 2013.

“He told Vinnie: ‘Be ready. This is going to take you about 10 years to figure this all out,’” said Matt Caldwell, current club president and CEO.

The Panthers had made the Stanley Cup Final in their third NHL season, but the good times did not last. Since that 1996 series, the Panthers had made the playoffs just five times entering this season and hadn’t won a round. Attendance figures were routinely lackluster, despite being propped up by free and deeply discounted tickets.

“When you have some of that deep-rooted mediocrity and failure, it takes a while to turn the ship around,” Caldwell said.

This year, there are signs the franchise has reversed course. The team is winning, and local participation in the sport and fan-engagement numbers are also trending in a positive direction.

Florida (32-14-5) clinched a playoff spot in the Central Division by beating Nashville, 7-4, on Tuesday. Having earned 69 points out of a possible 102 (.676), the Panthers are on track for their most successful regular season in franchise history by that measure.

First-year General Manager Bill Zito has reshaped the roster around the strong core of players he inherited, such as captain Aleksander Barkov, forward Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Zito’s arrival came one year after the signings of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, and Joel Quenneville, who ranks second in career wins and won three Cups as coach of the Chicago Blackhawks and one as an assistant on the Colorado Avalanche team that swept the Panthers in 1996.

Before this season, Zito made a number of player moves, including acquiring two-time Stanley Cup champion Patric Hornqvist in a trade with Pittsburgh and signing 2020 champion forward Carter Verhaeghe from Tampa Bay.

He continued to tinker at the trade deadline, landing forward Sam Bennett in a deal with Calgary. Bennett made an immediate impact, with five points in his first three games.

When Zito was hired, he also asked the organization to invest in building out his staff. The extensive group of new hires included three executives with past experience as NHL general managers — Rick Dudley, Les Jackson and Paul Fenton.

While some teams had cut back amid the pandemic — at least 17 of the 31 NHL teams had reduced pay in their hockey operations by September — the Panthers saw a chance to add, Caldwell said.

The organization has also hired former players into management roles.

After he retired at the end of the 2018-19 season, goalie Roberto Luongo was named special adviser to Zito’s predecessor, Dale Tallon.

One of Luongo’s teammates during his second Panthers tenure, Shawn Thornton, is also working with the team in retirement, on the business side. He serves as the club’s chief commercial officer, overseeing all revenue generation, including corporate partnerships, ticket sales and marketing and community relations.

The Panthers have typically been in the bottom third of the league’s attendance figures, ranking 30th in 2018-19, the last complete 82-game season before the pandemic. The team had seen improvement before the 2019-20 season paused in March 2020, Thornton said.

When Viola and Doug Cifu took over, they found that up to 5,000 free tickets a game were being issued into the marketplace, Caldwell said. In the 2008-09 season, a first-time fan with a Florida driver’s license could even get in the door at no charge.

The organization made the decision to turn off the tap and establish a price-integrity program. Some complimentary access was still granted to worthy community groups such as youth hockey teams and Boys and Girls Clubs. But for the most part, customers were assured that they weren’t paying for a ticket that someone else had obtained for free, or close to it.

“We said we have to be committed,” Caldwell said. “We have to have respect for our product.”

Not surprisingly, average attendance initially took a significant dip. Eventually, once fans understood that they’d have to pay the regular price to get through the gates, it started to rebound. As that demand increased, prices and revenues went up in lockstep.

That growth continues this year. Sponsorship renewals for next season are at 82%, which is 19% better than entering the 2019-20 season. Season-ticket renewals, at 72%, are on pace to exceed last year’s numbers, and the club has seen a 12% increase in new season-ticket holders compared with last season.

“My sales goal is to pace above where we were last season, even though we’re coming out of the pandemic,” Thornton said.

Hockey may not be the first sport that comes to mind in South Florida, but it is growing.

Overall participation in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties is up by nearly 20% over the past five seasons, including more than 30% among boys and girls younger than 18, according to USA Hockey. Those numbers are tracking well ahead of the national averages, a 6.8% increase in overall participation, including 7.6% in youth programs.

Jerry Laing became an accidental hockey dad after the pandemic led to the closure of the karate studio that his son Daniel attended. As the family searched for a new sport, Daniel was invited to a birthday party at a skating rink.

“It just so happened, at that same time, a live kids’ hockey game was going on,” Laing said. “He went over and saw the game and he said, ‘I want to do that. This is what I want to do.’”

A coach gave him some used equipment. Now, Daniel has moved over to the Panthers IceDen, the club’s practice facility in Coral Springs. And his father is a first-year Panthers season-ticket holder.

“It’s just been brilliant, and we love it,” Laing said. “My family loves it, and I can’t believe the effect it’s had on my 9-year-old son.

“The cool part about this is, everything that the Florida Panthers are doing, it reaches out to everybody. When you walk through those doors, it’s your DNA. Everybody’s got the same DNA.”

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