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OPINION

This is not the first time the Florida Panthers surprised us.

When NHL owners met in Palm Beach on Dec. 10, 1992, the Sunshine State was not yet a hockey state, and there was no anticipation it would become one anytime soon. The Associated Press didn’t even send a staff reporter to cover the meeting, and neither did the papers in Miami or Fort Lauderdale.  The AP instead relied on a stringer, and I was in the Miami AP bureau that afternoon when he called from the meeting. 

“You’re never going to believe this,” he said breathlessly. “We just got a hockey team.”

Billionaire businessman Wayne Huizenga had indeed swung a deal with the NHL for an expansion team, and even more surprisingly, he had managed to keep the news secret until the league announcement.

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More than three decades later, the Panthers have pulled another stunner. The Heat too, with both teams making improbable runs to the finals. 

When they started as expansion teams, I covered them both for the AP. I still have the media guides of each team’s first season, which might bring $1.99 each on eBay.

It seems like yesterday. I recall the Heat taking Rony Seikaly with their first pick in their first draft and thinking, “Hey, he’s pretty good. Maybe this team won’t be so bad.”

Wrong: They were terrible, losing their first 17 games and finishing 15-67.

I didn’t know what to expect from the expansion Panthers, because I grew up in Iowa and didn’t know anything about hockey. This is how I covered my first game: I sat in the press area next to a friend from Canada and waited for the red light above the goal to go on, which meant someone scored. Then I would ask him, “What just happened?” 

Eventually, I learned the nuances of the game so that I could use sophisticated hockey terminology, such as “cross-checking” and “healthy scratch” and “fight.”

The Panthers made the Stanley Cup finals in their third season, and the Heat became competitive too. I covered those thrilling early playoff series against the Knicks, but then gave up the beat shortly after Dwyane Wade was drafted – bad timing by me. 

Now, remarkably, Miami has its NBA and NHL teams playing in their sport’s Super Bowl in the same season. That’s in contrast with the Dolphins, a team I covered for 34 seasons. Every time they hired a new coach, which was often, I would introduce myself to him by saying I was looking forward to writing about the Dolphins in a Super Bowl some day. It never happened.

I saw the Dolphins, Heat and Panthers all struggle at times with attendance, and I covered 1,500 Marlins games, so I know it’s not a great sports town when a team is lousy, or even so-so. 

But I can’t criticize fans who are reluctant to pay lots of money to watch a loser. And when the team is good, South Florida crowds are lots of fun. I think they deserve praise for being so discerning, and there’s no question they love a winner – especially a champion. 

For an NFL team, the odds each year of reaching the Super Bowl are 1 in 16. The odds a few weeks ago that the Panthers and Heat would both reach the finals? One in a million. 

So enjoy. Two South Florida teams playing for league titles at the same time might never happen again. And I hear this is the Dolphins’ year.

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Steve Wine
Steve Wine

STEVE WINE is a former Associated Press sports writer who covered Miami teams for three decades. He retired in 2021, but remains a voting member of the Baseball Writers of America. He has fond memories of covering tennis tournaments on the Key and could often be seen at the Donut Gallery.

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STEVE WINE is a former Associated Press sports writer who covered Miami teams for three decades. He retired in 2021, but remains a voting member of the Baseball Writers of America. He has fond memories...