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The Panthers training facility sits on a scorched tract of land just east of the Sawgrass Expressway, off Sample Road in Coral Springs. The 40-degree disparity between outside and in keeps the automatic glass doors fogged. At Panthers practices, the chilly air combines with the sight of so many Anglo faces with their Canadian and European voices, making these players seem like exotic species kept in captivity made to resemble their natural habitat. But Dan Bouwmeester's question is hard to answer: Why is a hockey team down here?
Ostensibly, the players are emissaries of their imported sport, and the Panthers were created 15 years ago thanks to the league's interest in popularizing the NHL in a big media market that otherwise had little reason to follow hockey.
The original team owner was Waste Management and Blockbuster Video magnate H. Wayne Huizenga, who must have soured on his investment as the team struggled to locate fans in the late '90s. In 2001, he sold the franchise to an investment group led by Alan Cohen, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur, for $101 million. A study by Forbes magazine last year estimated the team's value at $151 million. But partly due to low ticket sales, the Panthers were one of the few teams that operated at a loss. Forbes ranked the Panthers the 23rd most valuable franchise out of the 30 in the NHL. The team occupies roughly the same lowly place in attendance, drawing only about 15,000 per game, a number that has held steady for the past three years.
But those fans can be expected to follow this team only if it wins, which it has not — at least not lately. Twelve years have passed since the Panthers made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals (where they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche). Since then, the Panthers have posted a record of 338 wins, 385 losses, and 145 ties or overtime losses. Over that lengthy span, the team has won only a single playoff game.
Entering this season, there was little to suggest the team could reverse its slide. In the offseason, the Panthers traded its leading scorer, Olli Jokinen. "Obviously, it means that me, Weiss, Olesz, and Booth all need to do a lot more than we have," says Nathan Horton, who was the third pick in the 2003 draft. Rostislav Olesz (pronounced OH-lesh) was the seventh pick in the 2004 draft, while David Booth was the team's second-round pick that same year.
To this nucleus of underachievers, the Panthers added a veteran overachiever. Cory Stillman, a balding 34-year-old with a knack for scoring goals, is playing on his sixth NHL team. The hope is that Stillman can provide steadiness on a roster of young players whose collective pride may still be smarting after last year's many one-goal losses. "It could be a lot of things," Stillman says after practice, knitting his brow like a doctor inspecting an x-ray. "But the biggest thing is having confidence that you're going to win if you're up by a goal – or if you're down by a goal. It's a habit to come to the rink expecting to win."
Bouwmeester comes off as more circumspect than his teammates, maybe because he has spent more time with the Panthers franchise. "It's easy to be positive this time of year," he says, speaking after practice, two weeks before the start of the regular season. "There's some optimism. We have new coaches, new players, an investment in defense. And everyone's got a good attitude."
But in Bouwmeester's monotone, with his habit of shrugging, looking over the head and to the side of whomever he's talking to, he sounds like someone who's placed his car for sale and is trying to remember its best attributes.
If so, it's understandable given Bouwmeester's uncertain future with the franchise. Panthers GM Jacques Martin was apparently so pessimistic about whether Bouwmeester would stay that he acquired three defensemen this past offseason: Bryan McCabe, Nick Boynton, and Keith Ballard.
At the very least, it means Bouwmeester isn't likely to repeat as the NHL's ice-time leader, which he admits "would be nice, I guess."
In the locker room after a 6-0 victory in a preseason game, Bouwmeester is slightly more effusive than usual. He is not offended that only a half-filled BankAtlantic Center bore witness to his goal and the team's triumph: That's hockey in South Florida. "It's different, but everywhere is different," Bouwmeester says. "You take it for what it is. If you don't have much success, the fans don't pay that much attention to you, but it's an open market, and as long as you win, you're going to get fans here."
Typically, though, South Florida sports fans need winning and colorful sports personalities — Dan Marino, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade. The Panthers, it seems, need a player who can both dominate a game and be a flamboyant ambassador out of uniform. Bouwmeester may be the only Panther who meets the first requirement, but he's not interested in being the latter.
"Part of the problem with Jay Bouwmeester," says ESPN's Scott Burnside, "is that he's not a particularly dynamic kid off the ice. He's a good western Canadian boy who does all his talking on the ice. He's not like [Washington Capitals star] Alexei Ovechkin or [Chicago Blackhawks star] Patrick Kane, whose personalities lend themselves to that kind of marketing. But there's no question [Bouwmeester] has the talent to be a franchise player."