Sports

A moment in the sun

JAMES DEACON June 24 1996
Sports

A moment in the sun

JAMES DEACON June 24 1996

A moment in the sun

Can the NHL keep scoring in the South?

Sports

Everyone was tired—it was, after all, 1:06 a.m., and most of the fans at Miami Arena had been yelling themselves hoarse for nearly six

hours. It was not fatigue, however, that suddenly silenced the loud, loyal rat-throwing supporters of the Florida Panthers. It was Uwe Krupp’s seemingly harmless shot from the blue-line that slipped by Florida’s heroic netminder John Vanbiesbrouck, giving the Colorado Avalanche the Stanley Cup and awaking the underdog Panthers and their fans from their improbable dream. But as Avalanche players swarmed the ice in celebration, a mighty chant of “Let’s go Pan-thers!” swelled out of the stands, as loud as the cheer that greeted the players when they took to the ice five hours before. After a night of electrifying excitement—and an entire season of overachievement—the fans did what their Panthers had done: they gave it all they had. Rafael Simani, a recent hockey convert, summed up the prevailing sentiment. “Victory in defeat,” Simani said, holding his hands out as if he were placing the words on a movie-house marquee. “ ’Cause that’s what it is, man. Victory in defeat.”

Denver versus Miami may not have looked like a marquee matchup, but it suited the National Hockey League just fine. The Avalanche victory consolidated hockey’s hold on the newest NHL city, Denver. And Miami’s warm embrace of the Panthers defied critics who claimed that palm

trees and ice would never mix.

The NHL had been hearing those claims since it tilted its map southward five years ago, adding expansion teams in San Jose, Anaheim, Tampa and Miami, and relocating existing franchises to Dallas (from Minneapolis), Denver (Quebec City) and, starting this fall,

Phoenix (Winnipeg). The new

cities helped the league win a five-year, $212-million U.S. network TV contract with Fox Broadcasting Co.—and produced a final between two refreshing newcomers.

South Floridians greeted each Panther goal with a barrage of plastic rats, a tradition that developed after winger Scott Mellanby killed a live rat in the dressing room before the season opener and then potted two goals. Panther fever melted any skepti-

cism about hockey taking root in the South. “We felt all along that if we could get people in the buildings,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, relaxing by a manmade waterfall at a Miami Beach hotel, “the game would sell itself.”

The Stanley Cup final was a sporting success as well. The Panthers played with heart and courage, although they could not match the talent of the Avalanche, a team that, with the exception of the thuggish Claude Lemieux, embodies the best attributes of hockey. While Colorado won the best-of-seven-games series in four straight, three of those games were decided by a single goal. And for more than five periods last week, the Cup-clinching game produced edge-of-the-seat excitement. Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy turned away 63 Panther shots. At the other end, Vanbiesbrouck—known to his fans as Beezer—played the game of his life, robbing successive Avalanche attackers of sure goals until Krupp’s seeing-eye winner.

The Avalanche were welcomed home with a parade through downtown Denver and a phone call from President Bill Clinton. Roy and captain Joe Sakic, the series’ most valuable player, were invited to appear on several late-night U.S. talk shows. But Denver’s triumph stirred up mixed emotions in Quebec City where, as the Nordiques until last season, the team never came close to a championship. At La Cage aux Sports bar in suburban Charlesbourg, fans watching on big-screen TVs intermittently chanted “Go Avalanche go.” When the game finally ended, waitress MarieJosée Gagné, 29, had tears in her eyes. “I’m happy for the people in Denver,” she said, “but I’m pissed off for what’s happened to us.” Landscaper Jean Frenette, 36, concurred. “It doesn’t hurt to see them win,” he said. “It hurts to have lost them.”

The NHL has a long way to go before catching up to the other big sports in America. U.S. television ratings for the National Basketball Association finals be-

tween Chicago and Seattle were three times higher than the NHL’s. But hockey is making inroads, particularly in the Sunbelt. Tampa was third in the league in attendance this season. Anaheim is the league’s most profitable team. Phoenix has sold more than 10,000 season tickets for the yet-to-arrive Coyotes. Given their first taste

of Stanley Cup action, Panther supporters claimed they have become fans for life. “I haven’t seen anything like this ever in this city,” said Mike Liotti, a 45-year-old Miami policeman who attended the Cup final game last week. “But I’m telling you, I’m hooked.” It must be the heat.

JAMES DEACON

in Miami with

MARK CARDWELL

in Quebec City