Fans Fill Arena For One Last Hurrah
MIAMI (AP) _ As more than 15,000 fans jammed the Miami Arena for one last chance this season to scream for the ``Beezer″ and celebrate Florida’s ``Year of the Rat,″ hundreds were left milling outside.
They didn’t leave even after the arena doors were shut Wednesday evening as Miami’s tribute began for the NHL’s Eastern Conference champions.
Under a light drizzle, they waved Panthers flags and chanted for star goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, the ``Beezer.″
Inside, one fan held aloft a ``Beezer For President″ sign. Another said: ``Thanks for making my wife a hockey fan.″
For Vanbiesbrouck, the turnout was as surprising as the third-year team making it to the Stanley Cup finals.
``I am very shocked,″ he said. ``I had predicted that we’d probably have 10,000 and that would be a great turnout, but this is phenomenal.″
The Panthers’ dream season sparked a love affair between fans and players.
``They’re just amazing,″ said Jennifer Walters of Miami, who admitted she wasn’t much of a sports fan before the Panthers got her hooked. ``I’m going to be going nuts about them into the next season.″
In a town where the Miami Dolphins and the Miami Heat haven’t done much recently to get excited about, the Panthers offered a refreshing change.
``Miami has been starving for a winning team. ... We finally get a taste of it,″ said David Josefsberg, clutching a fistful of $3 plastic rats he was selling.
For many caught up in the hockey mania produced by the playoffs, it was hard to believe it was over.
``They left their hearts on the ice. The least we can do is be here,″ said Robert Losada, who left work an hour early and was still wearing his tie when he rushed toward the arena, a plaque of Vanbiesbrouck tucked under one arm and his children, 7 and 5, in tow.
Some of the loudest cheers were reserved for Vanbiesbrouck, team captain Brian Skrudland and coach Doug MacLean, who was doused with an ice bucket by a couple of rookie players.
``You players have become the heart and the soul of this community _ a diverse community with many unique problems,″ Panthers owner H. Wayne Huizenga told the crowd of 15,500. ``We haven’t seen this kind of unity here in South Florida for 20 or 25 years.″
Young and old were swept up in the spirit of Rat-mania, an instant tradition of throwing rats on the ice after the Panthers scored. It started when winger Scott Mellanby killed a rat with his stick and went on to score two goals in a 4-3 victory over Calgary.