The Stanley Cup Final will make its long-awaited return to South Florida on Thursday.
Game 3 between the Florida Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights will be Florida’s first championship-round home game in 27 years. It also will fall on the anniversary of their first Cup Final game, Game 3 between Florida and the Colorado Avalanche, which was played June 8, 1996 at Miami Arena.
The Panthers have taken their fans for a wild and unpredictable ride to the Cup Final, just as they did in 1996. The run has brought back memories of Florida’s first championship-round appearance, a season known in the hockey world as the “Year of the Rat.”
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Aside from the coincidental dates — Game 4 of this year’s Cup Final will also fall on the anniversary of the 1996 fourth game — there are eerie similarities between the playoff runs.
In each season, a first-year coach helped Florida finish with 92 points before knocking off the Boston Bruins in the first round, then riding a ridiculously hot goalie to a pair of upset wins over 100-point teams en route to the Final.
“Probably the biggest similarity is just to make it, you had to win games to get in, and I would say they’ve been playing playoff hockey for a couple of months, which is what the team in ‘96 probably [did] the whole year,” John Vanbiesbrouck, the Panthers goalie in 1996 and current assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey, told The Game Day Hockey. “The rat thing became a whole thing unto itself where I can’t tell you I could foresee it playing out 30 years later.”
The Year of the Rat
Yet, unlike in 1996, no animals were harmed in the making of this run. Not only was 1996 the actual Year of the Rat in the Chinese calendar, but rats became part of Panthers lore during their home opener against the Calgary Flames at Miami Arena on Oct. 8, 1995.
While the Panthers were preparing to take the ice for the first home game in their third season of existence, a rat scurried across the floor of their makeshift locker room at the then seven-year-old arena.
“I think we got the two-minute warning [to take the ice], and in comes this rat,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “I think most of the guys were in fear of it, and it made its way around our room, running in a triangle shape.”
The rodent ran toward forward Scott Mellanby, who killed it by blasting it with his stick across the room and against a plaster wall.
“It came flying into our room,” Mellanby told ESPN. “It stopped, and it looked right at me, and it bee-lines right at me. I was not known for my one-timer, but this was a Brett Hull one-timer.”
“He didn’t even think, he just reacted,” Tom Fitzgerald, a Panthers forward and the current general manager of the New Jersey Devils, told The Game Day Hockey. “Just one-timed the thing against the wall … and [the rat] didn’t suffer, I can tell you that.”
Mellanby used the same stick to score two goals in Florida’s 4-3 victory. Vanbiesbrouck dubbed his accomplishment a “Rat Trick,” which led to a fan hurling a rubber rodent onto the playing surface after Mellanby again scored twice in Florida’s next home game against Montreal.
“We were all in a great mood, and I just said ‘hey, I got a great story for ya, Mellanby didn’t have a hat trick, he had a rat trick. He had two goals, and the third was the rat,’” Vanbiesbrouck said. “People really loved the story, and then when he scored they threw rats out.”
And with that, rat tossing was born in South Florida.
Rat Tossing Becomes a Thing
Fans hurled toy rats onto the ice at home games for Mellanby’s goals during the regular season. But the practice picked up dramatically in the playoffs, where they’d throw the plastic rodents for each goal at home.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen fans have such a great relationship with the players in any sport,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “This was a real, true relationship with the fans that they were able to not just wave a flag or cheer really loudly, they were able to chuck a rat.”
The practice gained national attention, especially during Florida’s Eastern Conference Final series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The image of Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso hiding in his net from the hundreds of rats after Panthers goals in Miami is among the most famous from that postseason.
“I have to give all the credit to the Florida Panthers marketing team. They dressed in Orkin outfits, and they were scooping up these rats like they worked for Orkin,” Fitzgerald said. “Seeing Tom Barrasso in his net, and those rats being pelted on the ice, it looked like black snow. It was pretty cool.”
Yet, it was Fitzgerald, an unlikely hero, who had the series-clinching goal against the likes of Mario Lemiuex, Jaromir Jagr, and the heavily-favored Penguins. His booming slap shot evaded Barrasso and gave the Panthers the lead for good at 6:18 of Game 7.
“My dad used to say ‘if you don’t hit the net, you can’t score,’” Fitzgerald said. “I put a bomb on the net because I was changing, and it went in.”
The first rats in Cup Final history hit the ice after Ray Sheppard’s power-play goal in Game 3 against Colorado, and Florida built a 2-1 advantage after one period. But the Panthers didn’t score again on Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy, and Colorado capped a sweep on Uwe Krupp’s legendary triple-overtime goal in Game 4.
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Florida fans still hurl rats onto the playing surface at big home games and playoff wins, but only after the game is over. In the aftermath of lengthy rat-cleanup delays, the NHL outlawed fans throwing objects onto the ice, threatening home clubs with a minor penalty for delay of game.
“I know that it was a nuisance, and for us we didn’t want to have big delays,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “After you score, you want to have momentum, so I was more worried about that. We knew [the rule change] would have to happen.”
A Family Affair
Because the Panthers fell short of the Cup, Fitzgerald’s series-clinching goal was the most important in team history until this season. Uniquely, his goal was unseated by his second-cousin, Florida superstar forward Matthew Tkachuk, who also scored the Prince of Wales Trophy-clinching goal with a tie-breaking, third-period tally. Tkachuk’s came with just 4.3 seconds remaining in Game 4 against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Ironically, a family member scores the winning goal 27 years later to get the Florida Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final,” Fitzgerald said. “I think that’s pretty funny, pretty unique.”
In another eerie coincidence, Tom’s son Casey Fitzgerald is also on the Panthers roster, and the defenseman made his Cup Final debut in Game 2. They are the first father-son duo in Panthers history to play in the playoffs, let-alone the Final, a fact made more special by Tom’s status as a flagship Panthers player.
“My son’s on the team. He’s part of that team,” Fitzgerald said. “When you have [two] family member[s] on the team — with [Tkachuk] too — there’s obviously a rooting interest. Layered on top of that is my history, and being an original Panther, and I can’t even tell you how many memories I have there. … there’s just a lot that pulled me toward [the Panthers].”
The Year of the Rat has served as a landmark sports year in South Florida for three decades because the Panthers have struggled mightily since. Florida didn’t win another playoff series until last season and went 12-26 in playoff games over five postseason appearances between 1996 and 2022.
“As the years ticked by, you realize the last time this team went to the next round, I was on that team,” Fitzgerald said.
Aside from their playoff struggles, the Panthers also moved out of Miami, 38 miles northwest to Sunrise, just outside of Fort Lauderdale in Broward County. The move alienated fans, especially those in Miami, which along with the mediocre team, led to sparse crowds at Panthers games until recently.
“Miami Arena to Sunrise is completely different. We drew from three counties: Dade, Broward, and Palm [at Miami Arena],” Fitzgerald said. “You see the fans that were there since Day 1, and you know they’re still there and that the original fans are still diehards.”
Whether Florida rallies to defeat Vegas, the diehard fans who have stayed with the Panthers, as well as those that hopped on the bandwagon mid-run, have flooded FLA Live Arena to create a great home-ice advantage.
Their reward will be their own fond memories of the postseason that the generation before enjoyed during the Year of the Rat.
“They’ve created their own run, and they’re creating their own folklore,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “They’re creating a whole new fervor for the sport down there and excitement. This is capturing a new fan base, and I think creating more hockey players and fans, and I’m excited for them.”