By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Sports Writer
SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Matthew Tkachuk is under contract to the Florida Panthers for much of the next decade. So is fellow All-Star Aleksander Barkov. And right there are two compelling reasons for players to join the Panthers in the coming years.
The last few days might have helped the recruiting pitch, too.
Many of hockey’s best players spent three or four days in South Florida. Some got in the ocean. Some golfed. Some just enjoyed the sun.
Playing host to the NHL’s midseason showcase and showing the all-stars what hockey can be like in the Panthers’ market — in Florida, in winter — could pay off in the long run.
“Barky’s been here a long time, signed eight years, wants to be here, wants to be here for like the remainder of his time here. That shows the hockey side that it’s a great place to play hockey and it’s a great winning culture,” said Tkachuk, the MVP of the All-Star Game. “It starts with your best player, your captain. But then there’s the off-ice part and everything that comes to play in Florida. Basically, everything guys are seeing now … like, wow.”
Wow, indeed. So much about the Panthers has changed over the last few years, and All-Star weekend was both confirmation and affirmation. Long gone are the days of the team continually hearing rumors about moving out of south Florida. So, too, are the days of the franchise being a doormat.
“This franchise was never moving anywhere,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “The closest it came was when they were in Miami and we were working to get a building because they couldn’t stay in the old Miami Arena. Since they got the arena in Sunrise, there’s never been an issue. And frankly, having the Violas’ ownership of this franchise, it’s not only phenomenal, it’s game-changing — pun intended.”
This September will mark the 10th anniversary of Vincent Viola buying the franchise. Recently, attendance has gotten better. Hope has been building. The team won the President’s Trophy last season and a playoff series for the first time since 1996.
This season hasn’t gone according to plan, thanks in large part to injuries. And while the Panthers are far from doomed in the playoff race, they have some serious ground to make up over the final 30 games.
“There’s no quick-fixes,” Florida Panthers president Matthew Caldwell said. “But now, we just feel like we’re structurally, financially, long-term stable.”
They’re also investing: The Panthers are refurbishing the War Memorial in Fort Lauderdale, which will become the team’s new practice headquarters starting next season, and plan to start more community outreach programs.
The core of the team is set for years. The infrastructure is in place. Ownership has shown it’ll spend what is required. And the Panthers can only hope some All-Stars this weekend took notice.
“South Florida’s a hockey town,” Caldwell said. “It took us a long time. But here we are.”
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