Dave Hyde: The Panthers, the Stanley Cup Final – and the 1996 team urging them on

Tribune Content Agency

They can’t remember 1996, because many weren’t even born then. So, they don’t know about Bill Lindsay’s flying goal in Boston or how fans lined the walkways outside old Miami Arena to cheer players and only some of them can sketch the story of why rats fly down on the ice after wins.

“I saw something about how it happened recently,” Florida Panthers defenseman Gustav Forsling said. “There was a rat running around.”

Scott Mellanby shot that rat against the locker-room wall one pre-game, went out and scored two goals that night and goalie John Vanbiesbrouck called it a “rat trick.”

Vanbiesbrouck was joking about that now over the phone a few days ago from Tampere, Finland, where he’s at the World Championships as an executive with the U.S. hockey team. The time difference meant he was waking up to catch the end of the Panthers games on television.

“That’s OK, because I feel I’m living a little vicariously anyway through my kids, who are huge Panthers fans,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “They’re asking for finals tickets, if we can get them. My grandson is a (Matthew) Tkachuk fan.”

He’s seen enough to critique Sergei Bobrovsky.

“He’s locked in,” Vanbiesbrouck said.

That’s the link between the two teams, maybe the only link other than the way the two teams took over a town. Those ’96 Panthers told of suddenly having tabs picked up for them in restaurants.

These Panthers saw Tkachuk sit between Charles Barkley an Shaquille O’Neal on TNT’s NBA set at the Miami Heat’s Game against Boston – and it wasn’t a basketball name fans were chanting.

“Chuck-y, Chucky,” fans chanted.

All this playoff run, these Panthers have been told who they aren’t. First, they weren’t a top team like Boston or Toronto. Then they weren’t like last year’s Panthers, who made it one round before being run off the ice.

All this makes them more like the 1996 team more than anyone. They have bigger stars starting with Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov. But there are plenty of players this team got off the scrap heap, guys like Forsling and Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Reinhart who could have come right off the 1996 roster.

Ed Jovanovski was a 19-year-old rookie that year with everything still in front of him. He now gives studio analysis at Panthers games so now has a hockey lifer’s perspective to it all.

Beyond the hot goalies, he says, “The one similarity is they know what their responsibilities are, just like (the 1996 team),” he says. “As the players go out there, there’s no uncertainty of what their role is. They’re coming in waves, forechecking, up and down, and not deviating from their system.

“That’s what I remember of our team. We didn’t panic if down. We always thought through our team work ethic and structure we’d find our way back into a game.”

“We overachieved back then,” Vanbiesbrouck said.

The Panthers don’t have much of a history you want to talk about. It’s really just that one spring of 1996 in which no one gave them a chance. Sound familiar?

“We weren’t supposed to win a round,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We got through Boston, just like they did this year. Eerily similar. We’re not supposed to beat a good Philadelphia team just like they weren’t supposed to be Toronto.”

“It was about having an opportunity to do something special with guys you’re with for over 200 days out of the year,” Jovanovski said. “That’s the part you can kind of look back on, all those nights to close it out and win with those guys. You didn’t know in that moment the memory is going to be there for a lifetime.”

Now here these Panthers are, waiting for the Stanley Cup Final to start. Maybe that’s where the stories diverge. The ’96 team was swept by Colorado. Vansbiesbrouck and Jovanovski hope their lasting memory is different.

“It’s hard to win the final game(s) of the season,” Vanbiesbrouck said.

Their good work in building hockey didn’t last. The arena they played in was torn down. The franchise went a quarter-century without winning a playoff series.

All that’s left is the rats.

“It’s a good story,” Forsling said.

There was a blood stain on the wall, circled in black marker, after Mellanby’s rat trick. That started the Year of the Rat. Twenty-seven years later Panthers finally have a season just like it.