Panthers' Journey from NHL Punchline to Stanley Cup Champions

The Florida Panthers are Stanley Cup champions, shedding their image as a joke team mocked for poor attendance and mediocre performance. For 25 years, the team went without a playoff series win, but those days are over.

Their victory wasn't without drama. The Panthers almost became a major embarrassment by nearly blowing a 3-0 series lead against Edmonton, forcing a Game 7. 

Comparisons were made to the infamous collapses of the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI and Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters. But the Panthers avoided that fate, proving they are no longer a laughingstock.

Winning the Cup against a Canadian team, after eliminating the prestigious New York Rangers, adds to their redemption story. They are now one of the few teams in the last 40 years to win the Cup after losing in the previous Final.

Defenseman Aaron Ekblad highlighted the team’s transformation, noting the tough early years with constant changes in management and coaching. Now, the Panthers expect to make the playoffs and challenge for championships, a testament to their growth.

Captain Aleksander Barkov and Ekblad stayed loyal, and so did many South Florida fans, from the mid-90s rat-tossing days to their recent victory parade.

Winger Evan Rodrigues, who grew up in Toronto, admitted he didn't pay much attention to the Panthers as a kid, given the focus on Canadian teams. 

Fellow Ontario native Ryan Lomberg recalled seeing photos of the empty arena with just a few thousand fans, a stark contrast to the team's current strong following.

The Panthers' attendance issues were once a league-wide joke. They handed out thousands of free tickets per game and launched the "First Timer" program offering free tickets to Florida residents. 

Even offering season tickets for $6 per game in 2010 didn't fill the seats, leading to parts of the arena being closed off.

CEO Matthew Caldwell, who took over in 2016, noted that the long playoff drought cost them generations of fans. The team's fortunes began to change with the purchase by owner Vinny Viola in 2013. 

Viola was among several owners over the years, following the team’s founding by billionaire Wayne Huizenga.

Now, the Panthers have left behind their turbulent past and established themselves as a premier NHL franchise.

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