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In Land Of Pink Flamingos And Beaches, Hockey Thrives

June 3, 1996

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ There’s no snow and the only ice is in the tropical drinks, but the improbable Florida Panthers have turned the land of pink flamingos, neon and sweltering heat into a hockey town.

Go figure.

``Hockey is taking over,″ said Carlos Bengochea, 19, while in-line skating Sunday in the Art Deco pocket of Miami Beach. ``I think up North they are a little mad at us. A state with no snow is in the finals.″

In one of the NHL’s most unfathomable scenarios, the 3-year-old team without superstars and nicknamed the ``Rat Pack″ could become the southernmost team to win the tundra’s most treasured trophy _ the Stanley Cup. Until now Philadelphia had that distinction.

After dispatching playoff perennials Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Panthers will play the Colorado Avalanche, a team which moved from Quebec this season. NHL history will be made in Denver beginning Tuesday night.

The Panthers have transformed an area known for football’s Miami Dolphins and Hurricanes and mega-coaches such as Don Shula, Jimmy Johnson and Pat Riley. First-year Panthers coach Doug MacLean marvels how he is recognized on the beach. ``I know it’s not because of my body,″ he jokes.

For South Floridians, the Panthers are welcome relief after suffering with the Dolphins, who were said to be Super Bowl bound for the first time in a decade last season but instead were a super bust.

``We’re excited. It’s been years since this city has had a professional team in a championship,″ said Frank Nayer, 19, of Miami Beach, sporting his new Florida Panthers cap.

He recently bought a hockey stick and a net and speaks proudly of knowing the difference between icing and offsides. Sports stores say they can’t keep their Panthers merchandise on the shelves long enough and ice skating rinks say their business has doubled.

The NHL says youth and adult street hockey leagues have boomed in Florida. In fact, hockey nets have become somewhat of a suburban traffic hazard.

``I think what Florida has started is truly extraordinary,″ said Bernadette Mansur, hockey’s vice president of communications. ``It really validates the whole lease of the NHL and the southern expansion _ that it’s a game that can exist in any sports market. It isn’t just a cold tundra ice-driven game.″

Meanwhile, on trendy South Beach where tundra ice could only mean a new beer on the market, there is nothing more hip than this hockey team.

Sure, it’s fashionable to have a $1,000 designer dress. But it’s almost as good to have a practice jersey autographed by goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck or to be seen at the rat-infested Miami Arena during the Panthers’ storybook run through the playoffs.

Panthers flags seemingly wave from every other car on Interstate 95, while chants of ``Go Panthers!″ and ``Me Gusta Las Panteras″ are interchangeable.

It’s not only in Miami that the Panthers are loved. They have been adopted by many Canadians who consider the Sunshine State their second home. When Montreal and Toronto took early summer vacations, the Panthers were a natural for those who vacation in Florida.

``We’ve been going for the Panthers,″ said George Daglaris, 24, a Montreal transplant who lives in Fort Lauderdale. ``Most of the players are from Canada anyway.″

In fact, 21 of the Panthers in the team’s playoff guide were born in Canada, so the players were perfect ambassadors for the game. Yet, transforming tropic dwellers into hockey enthusiasts took hard work by this team.

In October, there may have been more rats than people at the Miami Arena as attendance sagged. Owner Wayne Huizenga declared the team was costing him more than $1 million a month and briefly put the Panthers up for sale. Just like last year’s Stanley Cup champion _ New Jersey _ the Panthers were rumored to be heading to Nashville.

Then something happened. Scott Mellanby _ just one of many expansion draftees from three years ago _ saw a rodent scurrying between equipment bags before a game in October.

The wing picked up a stick and slapped the rat across the room, ending its visit and creating a rallying point for the team. He scored two goals that night, Florida went on to have the best record in the NHL at the season’s midpoint and fans began throwing plastic rats by the hundreds onto the ice after every Panthers goal.

Mellanby is now known as the ``Rat King,″ his team the ``Rat Pack.″ You can buy cupcakes at the grocery store with frosting rats on top. There is even a song on a local radio station: ``It’s Raining Rats.″

Opponents hate the rats. In the semifinals, Penguins goaltender Tom Barrasso hid in the net to escape the barrage of rat toys. Games are delayed by about 30 minutes as a whole crew has been hired _ yes, sponsored by an exterminator company _ to clean up the mess.

``They (opponents and their fans) say we have no morals, that we’re not sophisticated hockey fans,″ said Elizabeth Anderson, 15, of Miami Beach. ``I think it’s fun. It’s like our symbol. Nobody has that.″

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