All the help they can get

Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 12:34 a.m.


Panther problems

  • At the All-Star break, the Florida Panthers are just 15-19-10-8, good for 48 points. They are in third place in the Southeast Division and are seven points away from the Eastern Conference's final playoff berth.

  • SUNRISE - Greg Jacob clumsily put on pads, skates and a helmet Friday. He was even less graceful as he stood up and stepped into the hockey rink, holding onto the boards and using a stick to help keep his balance.
    He slowly worked his way around the rink, slipping here and falling there. It was, after all, his first time on skates - and his first taste of hockey, even if it came on roller blades, far from any ice, and on a warm, sunny day in Florida.
    "I can't even imagine skating and trying to hit a puck at the same time - all while getting knocked around," said Jacob, a 32-year-old medical technologist from nearby Weston.
    With the NHL All-Star game in South Florida for the first time, many fans with little or no knowledge of hockey are able to get an up-close look at the sport. They can try a slap shot or a one-timer. They can suit up and get in the goal. They can have a picture taken with the Stanley Cup or atop a Zamboni.
    Hosting the All-Star game could help bolster hockey's future in South Florida, but it also reveals one of the reasons the historically cold-weather sport hasn't flourished in the tropical area: Few people here have a connection to the game.
    In a city filled with such diverse backgrounds, few people know much about hockey. It doesn't have the world appeal of soccer, the notoriety of football or basketball and it's not America's national pastime.
    "You have to give it time," said Michael Lavendish, a 55-year-old engineer from Miami. "I grew up with the Dolphins, so they're a part of my life. I can't say the same thing for any of the other pro teams in South Florida. But for my grandchildren, things might be different."
    Maybe, maybe not. Major League Soccer folded both its Florida teams last year, citing poor support for the Miami Fusion and the lack of an owner for the Tampa Bay Mutiny. The WNBA also left Florida last year. The Miami Sol folded, and the Orlando Miracle relocated to Connecticut.
    And since the 2001 World Series, the Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Devil Rays have been at the center of talks about baseball's possible contraction.
    Hockey might be in trouble, too. But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday that he wasn't concerned.
    "Not at all," Bettman said. "This has been a very strong market for us. The reaction and support to All-Star weekend has been tremendous."

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