For a week, South Florida was the center of the hockey world.
The Florida Panthers hosted the 2023 NHL All-Star Game, the second time the marquee event came to Broward County and the first in 20 years, and the organization made sure to make a statement.
It held a week of events around the county — from a multi-day beach festival in Fort Lauderdale to various events in Coral Springs and Sunrise — to engage the community and bring a sense of hype to the hockey scene in the lead-up to Saturday’s All-Star Game, in which the Atlantic Division (which featured Panthers forwards Matthew Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov) ultimately won.
But now that the game and the festivities surrounding it have come and gone, Matt Caldwell is already thinking about what’s next — both with the team itself as it tries to make a playoff push down the stretch and with the hopes to continue growing the passion for hockey in South Florida.
“Toronto’s got [the All-Star Game] next year, but let’s get it back,” the Panthers’ president and CEO said Saturday. “We love throwing events like this. ... We were really proud to deliver for the league this week. All the feedback I’ve gotten has been very positive.”
It’s unlikely the All-Star Game will come back that quickly. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman essentially said as much on Saturday that the league wants to give as many of its franchises the opportunity to host.
That said, another All-Star Game would likely be in the cards at some point down the road. Caldwell is also hopeful the Panthers can host an outdoor game in the future, with the Miami Marlins’ loanDepot park a logical venue for that if logistics can be figured out.
But the Panthers could branch out beyond just the NHL realm when it comes to marquee hockey events. The Frozen Four (the NCAA’s final four for hockey) and world junior ice hockey championships are also possibilities the organization can think about hosting.
The Panthers will have even more sway once the hockey portion of the revitalized War Memorial Auditorium is complete. Caldwell said he expects things to be ready for the start of the 2023-24 NHL season after supply-chain delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the project.
The Fort Lauderdale venue, which will have two sheets of ice, will serve as the Panthers’ new practice facility. The IceDen in Coral Springs, the Panthers’ current practice facility which has three sheets of ice.
Caldwell said the plan at this point in terms of branching out would start with youth hockey tournaments — “We’ve already seen an influx of calls with people interested,” Caldwell said — and branch out from there.
“We’ll have five sheets of ice, in addition to the big arena,” Caldwell said. “Who wouldn’t want to come here in December, January, February?”
The Panthers having success certainly helps the cause as well.
As does the fact that players want to play for the team.
Just look at Florida’s two All-Stars this year as a prime example. Barkov, the No. 2 overall pick by the Panthers in the 2013 NHL Draft, signed an eight-year contract extension two offseasons ago. The Panthers acquired Tkachuk in the blockbuster trade of last summer largely in part because Tkachuk wanted to play in Florida. He signed an eight-year deal as well.
“I think just on the hockey part, Barky has been here for a long time and signed eight years. He wants to be here the rest of his career playing here. That shows on the hockey side that it’s a great place to play hockey and it’s a great winning culture and they want to become a winning team each and every year,” Tkachuk said. “That starts with your captain signing that [deal]. But then there’s the off-ice part that comes with playing in Florida and basically everything that guys are seeing now and it’s like ‘Wow. You have players that want to play here forever.’
“Also,” Tkachuk added, “it doesn’t suck outside the rink as well.”
And despite a topsy-turvy season so far, one that has the Panthers currently out of playoff position a year after the team won the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time in franchise history and a playoff series for the first time since 1996, Caldwell remains optimistic about where the team stands because of the core pieces in place on the roster.
“We’re in our window for sure,” Caldwell said. “We’ve had some setbacks during the season, some ups and downs, but we’re still right there in the hunt and we’re ready to finish strong.”
That starts Monday, when the Panthers resume their schedule against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Florida is 24-22-6, three points out of playoff position with two other teams sitting between it and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second wild card spot.
The Panthers in essence need to be nearly perfect down the stretch to sneak into the playoffs.
One thing on their side: They will be playing the majority of their remaining regular-season games at home. Starting with Monday against Tampa, 18 of their 30 games left are at FLA Live Arena.
“We’ve been on the road it feels like for the whole year so far,” Tkachuk said. “Finally, we get a little bit of time home. We’ll take advantage of it.”