Will COVID-19 Kill Miami’s Hockey Experiment?

“There’s a hockey in Florida?” This question is the first one asked by a casual sports fan upon being told that the Sunshine State plays home to not one, but two, NHL franchises- the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers, who call the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area home. The two were both born as a result of the boom in hockey popularity starting in the 1990s, as the league sought to grow the game beyond its traditional strongholds of Canada and the northern U.S. Over the past twenty years, however, the two franchises have been on seemingly opposite trajectories, and with the sports and economic uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Panthers’ Floridian future may be in jeopardy.

It seems a distant memory to hockey fans now, but the Panthers actually were the first of the two teams to have success upon entering the league. Within three years of their inauguration, the team made an epic run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996, buoyed by an energetic fanbase that became known for their tradition of the “Rat Trick”- throwing plastic rats onto the ice whenever a Panthers player scored three goals in a game. Unfortunately, in that finals the Cats fell to the Colorado Avalanche, and have never reached those heights again.

Over the next fifteen years, the team was seemingly snakebitten. During the 00s, the team was unable to build a contender; despite at various points featuring superstars like Pavel Bure (one of hockey’s most prolific scorers) and goalie Roberto Luongo (who while with the team won the Vezina Trophy for the league’s best net minder), the team could not build a good enough supporting cast around them to contend. To add insult to injury, in 2003 the Panthers narrowly missed out on being able to draft Alex Ovechkin, one of the megastars of the game who might singlehandedly have been able to reverse the franchise’s fortures.

In the 2010s, the team’s fortunes on the ice improved somewhat. The team hired Dale Tallon, one of hockey’s most respected executives who had built the Chicago Blackhawks into a Stanley Cup winner, as General Manager, and he overhauled the team’s drafting and development pipeline- which allowed the team’s top draft picks like left winger Jonathan Huberdeau and center Aleksander Barkov to blossom into All Star caliber players. The Panthers won their division twice, in 2012 and 2016, but lost in the first round of the playoffs both times.

Off the ice, the rat-hurling fans who had flocked to the team in their early years melted away in the Florida sun. The team’s low attendance has become such a pervasive meme that even their own players crack jokes about it. At the the 2019 NHL Awards ceremony, Barkov joked that there were more fans from his native Finland in attendance than Florida. And faced with the prospect of resuming the NHL season in empty arenas, former Panther Reilly Smith cracked that his years with the Panthers had prepared him for that possibility.

Florida’s remaining fans have had to endure these indignities while, across the state, the Tampa Bay Lightning have become the model for how a franchise can suceed in a non-traditional hockey market. Buoyed by playoff success including a Stanley Cup title in 2004, as well as an acclaimed arena located on prime real estate in downtown Tampa, the Lightning have become one of the hottest tickets in town, ranking among the top 10 franchises in attendance every year since 2012, while Florida has languished near the bottom of the table each of those years.

For years, the Panthers have been the default answer to whether or not an NHL franchise would relocate, and one suitor in particular would welcome the team with open arms. Quebec City was an NHL town once, hosting the Queben Nordiques until they were moved to Denver in the mid-1990s to become the Colorado Avalanche. An ownership group headlined by local telecommunications congolmerate Quebecor put together an expansion bid several years ago, but they ultimately lost out to the group that would creat the Vegas Golden Knights. Quebec City is still rumored as a relocation destination, but the league and Panthers owner Vincent Viola have always insisted that they are committed to keeping the team where it is.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis may change that calculus. With an unclear timetable for sports returning at all, let alone with fans in attendance, sports franchise ownership have lost one of their major revenue streams, and indeed all revenue for the time being. With the franchise less of a moneymaker than ever for the immediate future, it may become attractive for Viola to sell than when before it might not have been, and in the Miami area hockey will be very low on the priority list for events locals will want to attend once public events are permitted again.

This would not be the case in the Quebec City market. The Nordiques had a passionate following despite little playoff success and dysfunctional ownership, and fans there yearn for the team’s return. They can point to the last example of NHL relocation to make their case. The Atlanta Thrashers franchise, yet another bid to grow the game in a non-traditional market, floundered for years with poor attendance and low fan support, although the league insisted on trying to make it work there.

The 2008 financial crisis helped to change that calculus, eliminating most of the Thrashers’ small season ticket holder base. The team was then sold to a group that moved it to the small Canadian city of Winnipeg, where they became the revived Winnipeg Jets (the original Jets were relocated to Phoenix and became the Arizona Coyotes). Despite its small size, the Winnipeg market has been an unqualified success, as fans there consistently pack arenas to near maximum capacity and tune in to high television ratings. Quebec City has a compelling argument that they would similarly succeed.

It is far from a foregone conclusion that the Panthers will move- any talk of such a thing is only rumors at this point. But it is safe to say that hockey in Miami has been a failed experiment so far, both on the ice (mostly) and off. Commissioner Gary Bettman is committed to making hockey in non-traditional markets work, and would be loathe to give up on Florida. But just as the 2008 crisis forced his hand with the Thrashers, so may this one do with the Panthers.