With the Tampa Bay Lightning fresh off of two straight Stanley Cup championships and the Florida Panthers looking for one of their own after a historic Presidents’ Trophy-winning season, hockey is growing in the Sunshine State.
“It is great to see the excitement, not just in this building or even in this area, but throughout Florida,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said before Thursday night’s Panthers-Capitals game. “The combination of how well the Panthers are doing and the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions up the road, it had
created an unprecedented level of interest.”
It all came to a head last season when the two Florida teams met in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The rivalry between the two teams was jumpstarted with a series that the Lightning had to grind out in six games. And there was no love lost between the two sides.
“Any time you can have a geographic rivalry, it can spark, interest, especially in some non-historic markets,” Bettman said. “This is an opportunity for more fans to connect with the game and be more engaged in the game of hockey at all levels.”
The Panthers have been very keen on trying to couple their on-ice success with the growth of hockey in South Florida.
They will be introducing a new practice facility with two rinks at the War Memorial in Fort Lauderdale while the Boca Raton Ice and Fine Arts Center will bring another rink to Palm Beach County this summer.
“This franchise’s ability to invest in the community is vitally important,” Bettman said. “Places where we have teams where we never had teams before, there is great growth in registration for Youth Hockey. For young people, particularly with the programs, we think our game represents teamwork, hard work, leadership, and physical fitness – things that for young people are great life values.
“Even if we don’t have some future fans in particular cases but we make a difference in people’s lives, that is as important to us because we think we have the platform to do that.”
Youth hockey’s growth in the Florida market has been evident. Of the 16 players who came out of Florida in the NHL’s history, 10 of them skated in at least one game during the 2021-22 NHL season. Two of them made their NHL debut – including Pembroke Pines native and Jr. Panthers alumnus Chase Priskie, who now is a member of the Panthers organization.
“I will use the parent analogy; I have lots of kids and grandkids and I love them all,” Bettman said. “Same when it comes to franchises. What I am pleased to see is the level of connection the community has and all the things [Panthers owner] Vinnie Viola and this organization have done to really raise the game. And I mean that from the euphemistic sense as well.”
The Panthers are seeing that same growth at their level.
Following up a season where they scored the most goals since 1995-96 and won the fifth-most games in NHL history, FLA Live Arena had an announced sellout crowd of over 19,000 in each of the first two postseason games.
They have come a long way since the days when they were lucky to draw 10,000 fans.
“It is great to see. Hockey, at all levels, is growing here. That’s what it is all about,” Bettman said. “It’s all about the game. It’s about the arena, sure, but it’s hockey at all levels. Everybody loves to win.’’
Published in The Palm Beach Post