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Panther-mania Swells Civic Pride _ and Sales

June 3, 1996

MIAMI (AP) _ The Florida Panthers’ success means more than just civic pride. It also means dollars for merchants as some of hockey’s newest fans look for ways to feed their mania as the Panthers head to the Stanley Cup finals.

``I’ve never seen so many Panthers fans in my whole life,″ said Pam Dunn, manager of The Sports Authority in North Miami. ``We are definitely selling the goods. It is very busy. Everybody is coming in asking for Panthers stuff.″

Florida advanced Saturday to the Stanley Cup finals against Colorado with a win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. On Sunday, Dunn’s store sold the first batch of 300 Eastern Conference champion T-shirts within hours.

A second batch arrived Monday and half were gone by mid-afternoon.

``Everybody is so excited that a 3-year-old club has taken the challenge and is going for it,″ Dunn said.

Nancy Millan of Miami said she just saw her first game a couple of weeks ago and is awaiting her Panthers jersey with wing Scott Mellanby’s name on the back. ``I saw one game and I was hooked,″ she said.

Businesses throughout South Florida _ from the company that provides the food at the Miami Arena to local neighborhood ice rinks _ say the Panthers’ run at the Stanley Cup has increased business.

But the companies really cleaning up are the novelty stores, which sell the plastic rats that fans throw onto the ice after every Panthers goal.

It’s a ritual that stems back to when Mellanby killed a rat in October just as Florida was beginning its unbelievable season.

``I would say the owner has almost depleted the country’s rat supply,″ said Jerry Sturdefant, assistant manager of Annie’s Costumes and Magic in Plantation. ``We haven’t advertised the rats. Nothing special. It’s just a word-of-mouth thing.″

With the first game of the best-of-7 series Tuesday night in Colorado, Annie’s has ordered 1,500 faux rodents. The plethora of rats come in all shapes and sizes, with prices ranging from 99 cents (only good if you are within the first 10 rows) to $329 designer rats (only good if you are certifiably insane enough to spend that much money on molded plastic).

``The most popular model is a $1.79 12-inch rat,″ said Sturdefant. ``You get hurl power. Those clear from the 15th row of the second layer at the Miami Arena.″

Of course, successfully panning for gold in the polluted Miami river would be easier than landing Panthers tickets in Miami. So where are these rats being hurled?

``People are taking them to night clubs and to bars,″ said Sturdefant. ``Some are painting jerseys on them. It’s become a phenomena.″

There are some scurrilous entrepreneurs, though, who are taking advantage of Panther-mania. Melissa Fronstin, marketing manager at the Miami Arena, said counterfeit tickets are everywhere and going for hundreds of dollars.

``Buyer beware. They get them on the street, they get them from ads,″ she said. ``Only way to tell their ticket is authentic is to buy it from us. Some of the forgeries are very good. We know the difference, but the fans don’t.″

The arena sold out of 5,700 legitimate tickets for two games in four minutes Monday. Fans camped out nearly two days for a chance to go to the Stanley Cup Finals, even though the tickets were distributed through a lottery system.

Playoff tickets were also available through telephone sales, and as Fronstin spoke, Curtis Stelzer rushed through the door of the Miami Arena offices and hollered: ``I did it!″

Stelzer said he bought several individual seats for the playoff games through Ticketmaster and came to the arena to see where the seats were located in relation to the ice.

``I’ve already been to one playoff game,″ said Stelzer, a Miami communications consultant. ``I’ve been to the Final Four and I’ve been to big events and this is just overwhelming. ... It’s absolutely dominating what people are talking about.″

Many Panthers fans said the frenzy is fueled by the fact it has been more than a decade since a professional team from Miami vied for a championship.

``It has been so long since everyone could really get behind a team that they were just hungry for the opportunity,″ Sturdefant said. ``They are very proud.″

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