Hi, my name is Rory and I’m a Florida Panthers fan.
I know what you’re thinking: how does someone from Ontario become a Panthers fan? I know you’re thinking this because any time anyone asks me which team was my favorite growing up, they always give me the same cringed look after I answer and ask me “why?”
It’s a story of bandwagon hopping, childhood rivalry and, in the end, stubborn loyalty.
In 1996 – yes, I joined up as the team was riding John Vanbiesbrouck to a Stanley Cup final run – I still didn’t have a team to call my own. Living outside Toronto, the Leafs were a natural team to follow. My family is filled with Boston Bruins fans, so they also held a soft spot. But I didn’t want to follow those crowds – I wanted my own team.
First and foremost, Florida’s jerseys were appealing to my impressionable young eyes. The colors look sharp and the palm tree is a cool touch. While everyone else had their Leafs, Habs, Bruins, Sabres or whatever other traditional jersey at school, there I was in my tropical Panthers jersey. I still have that sucker to this day.
Then came the magical playoff run. I picked them to advance that far in my class pool, so each series win knocked out a fellow classmate and further entrenched my solidarity with the Panthers. They started by eliminating the Bruins, which made me feel superior to my family members who root for that team. Then came the Philadelphia Flyers, who were picked to win the Cup that year by a friend. Then came Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who the Panthers had to climb back from a 3-2 series deficit to beat on the road in Game 7.
And the rats. Ohhhh the rats.
In the Stanley Cup final the Panthers faced the Colorado Avalanche, the favorite team of a close friend of mine named Josh. Now cheering for the Panthers became a source of pride and a need to one-up my buddy. The series didn’t exactly go as well as the rest of the playoffs, though. Florida was swept aside, with the dagger goal coming from Uwe Krupp in triple overtime of Game 4. The dream was over. My trash talking ceased. Josh doesn’t let me forget about it to this day.
Now, I could have taken this time to move on from rooting for a tropical team that’s stationed about 2,400 kilometers from my hometown. But I didn’t. I had finally found a team that belonged to me and no one else in my world.
Lord knows I had plenty more opportunities to switch allegiances over the years. Call me pig-headed.
I was there for the surprising and amazing acquisition of Pavel Bure and the wasted 58- and 59-goal seasons that followed. I was there when Roberto Luongo arrived with all the promise in the world, only a few years after being picked fourth overall by the Islanders – I was still there when he was traded after zero playoff appearances for an underwhelming return that crushed my soul. I was there for the encouraging draft picks of Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, Jay Bouwmeester and the missed opportunity to select Rick Nash. I was there when Rick Dudley took a shot in the dark at drafting Alex Ovechkin a year early, citing leap year days that could have made him eligible. I was there for all those promising rebuilds and high draft picks that only led to more rebuilds and high draft picks.
I was there for each and every one of those 10 consecutive missed playoff seasons – and when they finally snapped the streak, too. And I was there for the playoff series they should have won, but ended up losing to the Cinderella New Jersey Devils. I’ve been there for each promising moment that ultimately fell through the cracks.
It would have been easy to bail from my long distance relationship with the Panthers over the years, but that’s not what being a fan is about. Being a fan is about proudly wearing your badge and sticking it out through thick and thin – even when it’s always thin. And even when your team grooms you to be a pessimist.
If I joke about them – which I regularly do – it’s out of love. The Panthers may have been a train wreck for nearly every season after that one magical run, but you know what? They’re my train wreck.
And they always will be.