“The days go so quickly, it gives us an opportunity to communicate with one another while we’re not being interrupted,” Michael says. “It’s helpful.”
The NHL season opens tonight and the Panthers’ season starts Friday, meaning two things: 1) It’s time for hockey fans to awaken from their summer slumber; and 2) We’ll learn if Yormark is dreaming when he says the Panthers, who haven’t made the playoffs the past eight seasons, are “on the verge of turning the corner” on and off the ice.
The Panthers open against the Blackhawks in Finland on Friday and Saturday, travel to Carolina on Oct. 9 and finally hit the BankAtlantic Center ice to face the Devils on Oct. 10.
Drawing a crowd for the home opener on a Saturday night is the least of Yormark’s concerns. Getting those fans to return is. And for all the grandiose pronouncements Yormark makes, such as how Nathan Horton can become a household name in South Florida, he’s not afraid to accept the truth.
Take his reaction when informed of what took place at a Panthers pre-season practice at Incredible Ice in Coral Springs. Yormark isn’t surprised to hear that a handful of avid fans concluded the minor-league affiliate Rochester Americans could beat the Panthers.
“We’re as disappointed as they are,” Yormark says. “I would also tell you that as an organization, we haven’t gotten it done. There are no excuses.”
Later, he adds, “We’ll never have the respect or the credibility in the marketplace that we want until we get over the hump, so I don’t blame our fans for being pessimistic. We need to prove to them.”
The only way is to end the NHL’s longest active post-season drought, even though the most significant transaction was the trade of All-Star defenseman Jay Bouwmeester to Calgary just before he became a free agent.
“Will they make the playoffs? I don’t think they will,” ESPN analyst Barry Melrose said. “I think there are too many teams that got better in the East.
“But I do like their team. I like the direction they’re going. If somehow they can get a little deeper on defense to overcome what Bouwmeester gave them point-wise and minute-wise, I think they’ll be fighting for a playoff spot – but everything has to be perfect.”
Reaching the post-season can’t happen until the spring. So until then, Yormark’s pitch centers around potential upcoming stars, solid team play and grit — a refrain local fans have heard nearly every fall, usually preceding an 11th- to 13th-place finish in the Eastern Conference. The club also lost more than $20 million last season, Yormark says. Is it any wonder he sleeps only a few hours per night?
So Yormark and his staff have gotten creative, including a ticket exchange between Panthers and Nets fans visiting each other’s city.
For $35 per game, season-ticket holders in 1,100 lower-bowl “Locker Room” seats will receive benefits ranging from autograph sessions to holiday greetings from a designated player, such as David Booth or Stephen Weiss.
Those seats were $50 last season. The club slashed prices in 11 of 14 seating areas, including upper-level season seats now as cheap as $7 per game. Yormark says season-ticket sales are up about 10 percent over last year and should approach 10,000.
“In a down economy, people do look for opportunities to just get away from everything,” he says.
A successful marketing campaign featured South Florida sports agent Drew Rosenhaus purportedly “negotiating” better prices for fans.
Negotiating, it seems, is happening everywhere in the BankAtlantic Center.
The team has long rumored to be for sale by owner Alan Cohen, although Yormark won’t confirm it. Acting general manager Randy Sexton is conducting business as usual, including the September signing of veteran Dennis Seidenberg to solidify a defense that allowed more shots on goal than any other team last season. Since Yormark expects the GM job to “flush itself out” soon, it’s almost certain Sexton will stay.
“Randy took us through the draft and the free-agent signing period as well as we could have expected,” Yormark says. “I don’t think we missed a beat at all.”
Although Yormark didn’t join the Panthers’ organization until 2003, he followed the 1996 “Year of the Rat” playoff run and calls it “one of the great sports stories in the history of this marketplace.”
“It’s a different time and place today,” he says. “Would we be able to duplicate the mania? Probably not. Can we duplicate the overall success? Yes. … We’ve kind of used that blueprint. When you think about what the best asset was of that group back in ’96, they were a team. They weren’t a collection of stars.”
If these Panthers can overachieve, maybe Yormark can finally get some rest.
“People say, ‘Can this market support hockey?’ We haven’t given the market a chance to embrace us or not embrace us,” he says. “Let’s have a great playoff run and then if this building is empty, then we’ll debate whether or not South Florida can support us.”