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A Sport From the Frozen North Thrives in the Land of Swaying Palms

June 7, 1996

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ There’s no snow, and most of the ice is in the tropical drinks, but hockey has taken over in the land of swaying palm trees and gentle sea breezes.

The reason for this bizarre transformation: the Florida Panthers, a team consisting mostly of no-name Canadians vying for the Stanley Cup just three years after the club joined the National Hockey League.

The Panthers, nicknamed the ``Rat Pack″ after a player killed a locker room rodent before the season’s first home game, are trying to become the southernmost team to win the tundra’s most treasured trophy.

``I think up North they are a little mad at us. A state with no snow is in the finals,″ said Carlos Bengochea, a 19-year-old fan.

The Panthers are going to need all the fan support they can get after dropping two straight to the Colorado Avalanche _ including an embarrassing 8-1 loss Thursday night _ in the best-of-seven series. The first Stanley Cup game in Miami is Saturday night at the rinky-dink rink at Miami Arena.

In the playoffs, Florida dispatched the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers, both postseason perennials, then beat the Pittsburgh Penguins and Mario Lemieux to advance to the finals.

``It’s absolutely dominating what people are talking about,″ said Curtis Seltzer, a Miami communications consultant. ``People are so into it. I wasn’t even into hockey until this.″

On trendy South Beach, where celebrities and models mingle, a Panthers jersey is almost as popular as a designer dress. Sports stores are running out of hockey merchandise.

Youngsters can be seen playing street hockey near the ocean, and youth hockey leagues are booming in Florida.

``This year I bought skates and a hockey stick,″ said Frank Nayer, 19, of Miami Beach. ``Last year we didn’t even know the rules or anything. Now we know. We’re like `Hey, that’s cross-checking, that’s offsides.‴

Florida’s hockey fans are also showing their enthusiasm by lustily throwing hundreds of plastic rats (the most popular model: the $1.79 12-inch rodent known for its ``hurl power″) onto the ice after every Panther home goal.

The shower of rats forced Pittsburgh’s goaltender to seek cover in the net, and the team owner’s wife has been warned she will be thrown out of Colorado’s arena if caught tossing a faux rodent. Turn on the radio and you can hear songs like ``It’s Raining Rats″ and ``Rat-trick Fever.″

The 14,703-seat Miami Arena sold out of 5,700 tickets to two Stanley Cup games in four minutes. The rest are going to season ticket holders and VIPs.

``I have never see anything even close to the frenzy of buying tickets as this,″ said Melissa Fronstin, marketing manager at the arena.

For South Floridians, the Panthers are a relief after suffering with football’s Miami Dolphins, who were said to be Super Bowl bound for the first time in a decade last season but instead were a super bust. Baseball’s Florida Marlins and basketball’s Miami Heat haven’t done much better.

Canadians living in the Sunshine State are especially smitten.

``Most of the players are from Canada anyway,″ said 24-year-old George Daglaris, who moved from Montreal 14 years ago.

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