- The Washington Times - Monday, December 5, 2011

SUNRISE, Fla. — The glory days of Florida Panthers hockey were a long time ago now – from 1995 to 2000. John Vanbiesbrouck and Scott Mellanby might not be walking through that door, but a piece of that success has come back.

Rats.

That’s right, the plastic rats that fans threw on the ice during the Panthers‘ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996 have returned, symbolically showing that this team has once again become relevant in South Florida.

“You’ve got to give people something to be proud of,” Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell said. “We want to give them a reason to get excited.”

The rat tradition, akin to Detroit Red Wings fans tossing octopi on the ice for goals, was the subject of a front-page story in Monday’s Miami Herald. Campbell even noticed some rats far away from BankAtlantic Center.

“Oh yeah. It’s great. There were a few on the ice in San Jose the other night when we won,” Campbell said. “That was awesome to see. … I thought that was great. Fans are coming to games even on the road and enjoying it.”

The Panthers became hot in South Florida because they were one of the most successful expansion franchises in NHL history and got all the way to the 1996 final before losing to the Colorado Avalanche. They haven’t been in first place this late in a season since 2000.

So it’s only fitting the rats are back, too.

“They’re definitely starting to make a comeback, I guess,” center Stephen Weiss said. “And that’s good – bringing back a little bit of stuff from the past when the team was successful. So it’s fun.”

The success of the Panthers‘ through the first quarter of the season has been arguably the biggest surprise in the Eastern Conference. Only the Minnesota Wild leading the league in points could be considered a bigger shocker.

Florida completely overhauled its roster over the summer, jettisoning Tomas Vokoun and others and trading for Campbell and signing ex-Capitals players Tomas Fleischmann and Matt Bradley, among others. Fleischmann has 12 goals and 15 assists to help lead Florida.

The chemistry happened quickly for this group.

“You never know 100 percent how it’s going to end up or react. We just had a great attitude coming into camp,” Campbell said. “The past is the past year and we have a lot of new faces that didn’t experience the past. It’s nice to see guys that have been here for a while that are having fun playing hockey.”

The rats are flying again, and players sense a renewed excitement around the team. But the Panthers insist they haven’t reached their best.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” Campbell said. “We’ve got a long season to go. It’s early yet, so we’ve got to keep going that way.”