Throughout our 25th Anniversary season, we look back at some greatest highlights of Florida Panthers history remembered by the reporters who experienced it firsthand. First up: Brian Biggane, who covered the team for over a decade for the Palm Beach Post.
The media availability following the Panthers’ practice between Games 1 and 2 of the 1996 Stanley Cup Final in Denver was winding down Wholesale jerseys
when a reporter approached Scott Mellanby with a request he had heard roughly 999 times over the previous eight months.
“Could you tell the story about the rat one more time?” Mellanby looked at me, standing a few feet away, and a mischievous smile spread over his face.
“Should I?” he asked me.
I smiled back, knowing one of the most media-friendly players I met in my 42-year sports writing career would once more lay out the tale that to this day stands as the most iconic in the 25-year history of the franchise.
It was during the first intermission of the home opener against Calgary on Oct. 8, 1995, and coach Doug MacLean had just finished offering some thoughts to his players seated on benches around the tiny locker room inside Miami Arena. As the players rose to head back to the ice a startled rat ran across the room. Stick in hand, Mellanby instinctively swatted it into the nearby door jam. The rat twitched a few times and expired.
Mellanby would score two of his career-high 32 goals in a 4-3 win that night, and as the unsuspecting media headed into the jubilant locker room it was goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck who would let on what had happened a couple hours before.
“‘Mell’ had a rat trick tonight,” said a grinning Beezer. “Two goals and a rat.” With that he pointed to a spot by the door where someone (I always suspected Paul Laus) had written “R.I.P. Rat.”
That game began a six-game homestand, and by the time it ended fans had captured the moment, tossing plastic rats on the ice after every Panthers goal. Stores around the arena and even the arena concessions themselves began stocking up as fans wanted to get in on the phenomenon. Every game was a sellout in the 15,000-seat arena, which was small enough that anyone with a good arm could hurl one to the ice surface.
Soon enough the Panthers were arming their front-office employees with shovels, sending them out after every home goal to collect the dozens and dozens of plastic toys that were unleashed after every home goal and pouring them into large white buckets, no doubt to be dispatched to the same souvenir stands that had sold them for $5 apiece only hours before.
Commissioner Gary Bettman threatened to impose a delay-of-game penalty, but there was no stopping the craze once it got rolling, and hey, the rats had quickly become the symbol of this gritty team that had captured the imagination of South Florida. Beyond that, it was Bettman himself who had helped sell NHL owners on the idea hockey could work in an area that had regarded ice first and foremost as a main ingredient in the making of a mojito.
Whatever thoughts league officials had of a crackdown disappeared completely when Marti Huizenga, wife of Panthers owner Wayne Huizenga, was spotted with her own stash of plastic rats, reaching up from her seat along the glass to flip them over the top. Now even celebrities were onto it.
Everywhere on the road the Panthers would go it was the first line of inquiry: When did this start? Were the players having fun with it? Were they worried about the league stepping in? Was this even legal?
The players, of course, were unequivocal: This was fantastic. In only their third season they were the talk of South Florida. Fans who had been drawn to watch games by a gimmick were quickly learning that nothing in sports is quite like in-person hockey, with its speed, physical play, dramatic goals and great personalities.