SUNRISE — They brought back all the old Panthers for the home opener on Friday night. Inaugural owner H. Wayne Huizenga dropped the ceremonial puck with new owner Vinnie Viola in a nice touch before the game.
The first captain, Brian Skrudland, was on hand with former teammate Rob Niedermayer. Even the first public-address announcer, John LaMont, announced a score with his trademark, "Panthers … go-o-oal!"
But it was the current coach who 90 minutes before the opener gave the real history lesson of this franchise, the one that couldn't be ignored or masked by another feel-good walk down memory lane.
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"We've got to play better, I think we all know that," Kevin Dineen said outside the team locker room.
His face was grim, his tone sober, his words entirely correct. Four games into the new year and it wasn't too early to be looking late for the Panthers. Just like it's been for too many of their two decades.
Sports is about the moment more than the memory. That's why Friday's 6-3 win against Pittsburgh resonated beyond just the welcome back to Panthers fans for another season.
Through some awful scheduling by the NHL and matching performances by the Panthers, they entered the BB&T Center with a 1-3 record. They were outscored 16-3 in the final three games. Worse, even the coach said they weren't hustling.
"We can't just have guys play one way,'' Dineen said before the game. "We need them playing extra hard on offense as well as on defense."
But the Panthers played hard in this one. They looked like a team that was called out by its coach. And their second period didn't just give the lead but gave fans hope in the season opener.
Jonathan Huberdeau, the rookie of the year last season, gave the Panthers a 3-2 lead off a two-man power play. Then rookie Aleksander Barkhov, who also had two assists, scored less than a minute later on the power play.
In many ways, those are two players whole will help define a season's progress for the Panthers as much as the win-loss record. This team is still trying to find a star that dominates on the ice and has a chance to be the face off it.
Maybe Huberdeau is on his way to becoming that. Or Barkov. Or any of the other young faces General Manager Dale Tallon has put on the ice with an overload of draft picks the last couple of years.
That's the best part of this Panthers roster and the hardest part for any fan with a memory. A decade ago, it was Nathan Horton, Jay Bouwmeester and Stephen Weiss who were going to grow up and lead the team back to relevance.
They're gone now. So now everyone waits to see who this latest crop of kids grows up and becomes. They have talent. You can see that again on opening night. But will that talent develop? Will the effort be consistent?
Two decades ago, the Panthers were new and fun and had a franchise that made a mark on South Florida. The rats. The Stanley Cup Finals. Maybe you've heard. And heard.
But 20 years into their run the Panthers are still trying to build on that memorable start. And the only way to do that is to build the product. So while the anniversary celebration was nice, and the new scoreboard was nice, the game was the thing.
"It's an important game for us,'' Dineen said beforehand.
This first night back home became a good one for the Panthers. There were all the old Panthers to celebrate. More importantly after a slow start on the road, there were the current ones.