By Donny Rivette
Compiling a list of four defining faces for a club with only 16 seasons and three playoff appearances behind it might appear simple, in principle,; but after taking the perennial rebuild and revolving door of players and management-types of the past decade into account, the task becomes slightly more involved than just naming the four "best" Panthers. End of run-on sentence.
That approach would be of the happy sunshine-and-rainbows variety -- and certainly valid -- but when asked to submit my nominees, it became immediately clear that a more honest summation of the franchise was the only direction to go. When the first name to pop into my head was not that of a player, I knew a crossroads had been reached. Who has really shaped the modern perceptions of the Florida Panthers?
For what seem rather obvious reasons, current Cats (be it management or the guys in uniform) are not included here. Beloved as David Booth(notes) unquestionably is, he's not yet Puckmore-worthy, any more than GM Dale Tallon; not enough time has gone by, dubious distinctions collected, or lofty goals achieved to demand inclusion. They may be extraordinarily popular at present, but haven't yet re-shaped the public impression of what's come before them. (Note: That might change on Dale's behalf if he happens to sign Kovy tomorrow...)
This being said, there are a few potential candidates whose faces would not look out of place carved into a tall hillside(!) in Sunrise, and -- consider yourself warned -- they aren't all fan favorites: Inaugural team captain Brian Skrudland. Do-it-all forward Scott Mellanby. Mike Keenan for his disastrous reign. Roger Neilson brought a unique style and credibilty behind the bench in Year One. Doug MacLean's wild ride in '96. Petr Taticek, whose name alone encompasses so much of what went wrong in the early 2000s. Love him or not, club COO/prez Michael Yormark continues to leave his footprint on the organization. Denis Potvin's years (and years) of service before the cameras. But these gentlemen -- and others -- don't "frame" the story of the team as it stands today, right now.
If there is a runner-up to the Final Four, it's Bill Torrey. One of founder Wayne Huizenga's first hires in 1993, Torrey remains with the club as an alternate governor. He's been there from the start in various executive capacities and is widely credited as having been responsible for recruiting Tallon. The guy is literally Mr. Panther, and deserves his own mountainside. Anyway, in no particular order, onward...
John Vanbiesbrouck, G
He was truly the club's first "star" on rosters dominated by role players over five seasons. Even today, his name is recalled most often among non-devotees of the sport in South Florida (apparently they do exist), a testament to how frenetic and weird and wonderful the 1996 playoff run imprinted itself in the minds of locals and he was the central focus of it all. Though his numbers with the Panthers weren't collectively electric (106 wins in 268 gp) it was his ability to steal games -- and playoff series -- that created a groundswell of regional interest and a generation of fans introduced to a new sport. No. 34 will be hanging from the Bank Atlantic Center rafters any day now.
Olli Jokinen(notes), C
The Panthers all-time leader in goals (188), assists (231), points (419), GWG (36), OTG (10), and SOG (1,837). Is second only to defenseman Robert Svehla in games-played (567 to 573). Captain from 2003-08. If Iron Mike could be credited for any positive contributions to the organization, it was his efforts in pushing-prodding-formalizing Jokinen as a legitimate first-line center after failed runs in Los Angeles and Long Island.
Though his numbers porpoised from year to year (maxing at 91 points in '06-07), Olli came into his own with the Panthers, becoming the club's de-facto franchise player following the Luongo trade. Though his effort was at times questioned by fans, as captain he somehow managed to keep internal team politics (namely an unconfirmed but highly likely feud with then-GM/coach Jacques Martin) from busting out of the dressing room.
Jokinen was a tireless supporter of local charities and maintains an offseason Florida residence.
Alan Cohen, owner
As Panthers managing general partner (read: owner) from 2001 until November of '09, he approved all major transactions while nursemaiding the Cats' long, painful slide into mediocrity. No sports team owner sets sail to destroy their club -- or its fanbase -- but so many of the decisions handed down, particularly in front office hiring, seemed made on personal whim rather than a careful, responsible vetting process that complements your long-term goals for the club. Consider the sheer number of GMs to pass through the franchise in that time: Chuck Fletcher, Rick Dudley, Keenan, Martin, Randy Sexton; yes, five men in eight seasons (but only six coaches in that period).
And when an owner who has vacancies in both head coach and general manager offices hires the bench boss first -- as was the case with Martin and Keenan -- you can see the red flag from a mile away.
He remains with the Panthers today as a partner (read: smaller owner) but it was he who oversaw the mind-boggling decline of his former property result in a lousy on-ice product with no postseason action, market derision, and the scorn of fans, hence his inclusion here.
Pavel Bure, RW
Name three (reasonable) typecast images of the Panthers. I'll help with the first two: The "Year of the Rat" and "no playoffs in a decade." Leaving behind the usual northern blather about relocation, contraction, and non-traditional markets, the third answer can only be what the Russian Rocket brought to South Florida: the Cats had finally nabbed an all-world superstar in his prime.
A true headliner with precious few equals, "Pasha" arrived in January of '99 and positively lit up the scoreboard -and rallied locals to the BAC. In 224 games, Bure netted 152 goals, 99 assists, and 251 points while winning the Richard Trophy in 2000 and '01. Panthers fans had never witnessed anything like his talents in a Florida uniform, nor since; he was simply the finest, most skilled player in team history. Injuries ravaged his stay with the Cats, culminating in what was essentially a damaged-goods ship-off to the Rangers in March of '02, but for a brief spell, the Panthers had one of the world's finest hockey players.
His presence allowed for true international exposure and brought that many more eyeballs to the franchise, making it a must-see attraction in South Florida.