Florida Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen talks to players during the first period of the first of two preseason NHL hockey games against the Nashville Predators, Monday, Sept. 19, 2011 in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
SUNRISE, Fla. - On an 30-degree, late-summer day in South Florida, the Florida Panthers tried to get people thinking about hockey.
The NHL pre-season started in most unusual fashion Monday, with the Panthers hosting the Nashville Predators for a doubleheader—one where no player actually skated in both games. Nashville won the first game 5-3, a matchup that began at 3:08 p.m. with an estimated 500 or so people in the seats, many of them ardent fans who wore Panthers jerseys.
Nearly seven hours later, Florida finished off a 4-3 win in the nightcap.
So it wasn't exactly a playoff atmosphere. Players didn't seem to mind.
"I think it's a neat idea," said Panthers forward Steven Reinprecht, who had an assist on Florida's first goal of the afternoon game. "And it's definitely created a buzz. I know there's a lot of talk about the doubleheader. And I think there's a lot of buzz with all the new guys we brought in and everything. So it's nice to be able to showcase most guys in one day. Pretty neat idea."
The Panthers called it "Hockey Day in South Florida," with autograph sessions preceding both games and plenty of reminders everywhere that the season starts for real next month. Florida home games drew an average of 15,685 last season, meaning 81 per cent of the available seats were filled—the 25th-best mark in the 30-team NHL.
But the team hopes a slew of roster changes, along with a new coach and aggressive marketing campaign helps generate more attention, an ongoing battle in some of hockey's nontraditional markets.
"Since they've moved hockey more to the south, it might get people interested," said Nashville's Colin Wilson, who scored the first goal of the day. "We want to make it as exciting as possible so we can get more people in the stands. And obviously if you're playing against the Winnipeg Jets right now, it's going to be filled up. To come to a not-exactly-filled-up barn, it feels a little bit more like tryouts."
To call the crowd for the day game not-exactly-filled-up means Wilson was being more than a little polite. The nightcap drew significantly more people, though the overwhelming majority of seats remained empty.
No matter. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, even though the early game was filled with mostly young players who won't open on their respective NHL clubs. Florida was holding some of its top players off the ice all day, including forward Stephen Weiss, defenceman Ed Jovanovski and newly acquired goalie Jose Theodore.
"I'm staying for both games," retiree Donald Miller, a South Florida transplant from the Buffalo, N.Y., area said early in the afternoon contest. "It's good to be cold again."
The final numbers for the day: 15 goals, 110 shots, 25 penalties, and one fight, all before a generously announced attendance of 7,327.
"It's good for the fans," Florida's Matt Cullen said. "And good for the players, too."
Those Florida fans who did show up got a look at the franchise's future. Jonathan Huberdeau—the No. 3 overall pick in this year's draft—had a goal and an assist in the nightcap.
"It's just the beginning," Huberdeau said. "I've got to work hard to show I want to make the team. ... It's a good start."
A hockey doubleheader may be rare—no one is sure if it's happened before at the NHL level, even in pre-season—but the split-squad notion is going to be fairly common around the league for at least the next couple days. Calgary and Vancouver will send teams to play in each other's home arenas on Tuesday, as will Winnipeg and Columbus. Edmonton is splitting its roster Tuesday for games against Chicago (in Saskatoon) and at home against Minnesota.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz said Monday's format actually was advantageous for his team's scouts and others involved in deciding which players will go where within the organization.
"I like this better because it ups the ante a little bit, in the sense there's a higher quality of player," Trotz said. "You have the rookie camp and those rookie games and it's peers against peers for the most part. ... This is a step up from that—not NHL quite yet, because it's a mixture of guys. But it forces you to up your ante and your game a little bit and play with pride because you're representing the organization and the sweater."
On Wednesday, more split-squad contests dot the schedule, when Los Angeles and Phoenix divide their training camp rosters. At this point, most teams have well over 50 people in camps. Many will cut down quickly; the Panthers, for example, plan to be somewhere around 45 people in camp possibly as early as Tuesday.