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I Am A Proud Florida Panthers Bandwagoner

Matthew Tkachuk #19 of the Florida Panthers celebrates with his teammates after scoring the game winning goal on Frederik Andersen #31 of the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at FLA Live Arena on May 24, 2023 in Sunrise, Florida.
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Since the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs, I've been doing a very stupid bit that nonetheless has brought me a lot of low-stakes joy. Whenever anyone mentions anything about the Florida Panthers, or whenever those same Florida Panthers win a game, I proudly and quite moronically proclaim them "MY Panthers." It's a bit in the sense that they are only by the longest stretch of the imagination my Panthers. It started on April 20 in our work Slack, when Maitreyi blogged about MY Panthers' Game 2 win against the supposedly world-conquering merchants of doom that were the Boston Bruins, which was also around the time I started to—vaguely—pay attention to how Florida was doing in the playoffs.

I was so innocent then. I barely knew who Matthew Tkachuk was, but I knew he existed because I work at a sports website and read, if not always absorb, my hockey sicko coworkers' ramblings. I have retained that Matthew Tkachuk and Brady Tkachuk are brothers. (I have also retained the names Artem Zub and Kaapo Kakko, though I do not really know why.) I also knew enough to know that the Panthers should have gotten steamrolled by Boston, while also understanding that regular-season success does not mean as much in hockey as in other sports, though MY Miami Heat are doing their best to disprove that in basketball as well.

So, when I saw that the Panthers had come back from 3-1 down against the Bruins to force a Game 7, I tuned in. And when they won that game in overtime, I was hooting and hollering.

Playoff overtime hockey is something I've always enjoyed, given the nature of both sudden-death sports and hockey's penchant for having a goal come out of nowhere, at least for a neophyte like me who does not see the signs of incoming sirens. It was also at this point that I decided to officially bandwagon a team that is, for all intents and purposes, the hockey team of my youth.

I grew up in Miami-Dade County, which even at its northernmost edge, is still a good 35 minutes from the Panthers' home arena in Sunrise. I've never been to a Panthers game, though I have spent time in their arena. My first-ever concert was there, as my brother took 10-year-old me to see Godsmack open for Limp Bizkit. We had been there a year before that, too, at WWF's Armaggedon show in 1999, which was only memorable because Miss Kitty flashed the crowd after winning an Evening Gown Pool Match. (Wrestling in the late '90s was a disaster.)

The point is, I am familiar with Sunrise, but I am not all that familiar with the Panthers or their history. I know they made the Stanley Cup Final once before, in 1996, and that there have been recent murmurs of competency since then, and a lot of garbage in between. Back when I used Facebook, I would know when the Panthers were good because people who had never watched a second of hockey would begin to post like, well, like me. "MY Panthers" is a sickness, and it is contagious. I used to look down on that kind of bandwagoning. But now? Now they are MY Panthers too.

Bandwagoning has its uses, after all. I wouldn't be a New England Patriots fan if I hadn't jumped on the bandwagon in the 1996 season. There I was, 7 years old and living in Connecticut, of all places, after my family immigrated from Venezuela, and I had never seen football before. Why wouldn't I pick the local-ish team who was doing really well? That they made the Super Bowl only to lose gave me the right mixture of joy and pain that made the fandom stick.

I have a similar relationship toward hockey now that I did with football back then. I really don't know what icing is, despite having looked it up. I didn't really grasp that hockey players rotate on and off as often as they do. And, when these playoffs started and the Panthers began taking it to the Bruins, I didn't know a single player on Florida's roster, not even to answer Ray Ratto's "name one Panther" challenge after the nth time I called them mine.

It doesn't matter! It really doesn't. I now know that Tkachuk is a machine of game-winning inevitability. I am aware that Sergei Bobrovsky is my new goalkeeping god. I am all-in on Panthermania after they brushed the Toronto Maple Leafs aside in five games and the Carolina Hurricanes in four. Well, mostly in. I missed the fourth of four overtimes in that glacial ballet of Game 1, turning off to go to bed as the third extra period came to a close. It was 1 a.m. and I was tired, but if I could do it again, I would suffer for this fandom.

This is what bandwagoning can do. It can let you find fun, even if it is somewhat manufactured and self-aware, in something you otherwise wouldn't have cared about. It's how I got swept up in the "Go Birds" of it all this past NFL season. It's how an inkling that Morocco could do well in the World Cup this past winter turned into full-on rooting for the Atlas Lions by the time they ran up against France in the semi-finals.

Because sports aren't always so fun when you live and die with a team, win or lose. Argentina's trek through the World Cup nearly killed me, so strong was my hope that Lionel Messi would finally get his trophy. Every Pats playoff game ever has made me physically nauseous. Watching the Miami Heat in these playoffs has probably taken years off my life, and I currently live in marrow-deep fear that they will become the first NBA team to blow a 3-0 lead.

It's been nice, then, to have a team that I can root for without getting too invested in their ups (mostly) and downs (rarely) this postseason. I had Game 4 on my second monitor on Wednesday evening, while I was playing World of Warcraft on my main screen. I have to admit, I missed Tkachuk's game-winner; we were in the middle of an intense boss fight.

No matter, though. When you are bandwagoning, being late is part of the deal. A couple of minutes later, after my best friend had blown up my phone with ice and cat emojis, I went to Twitter, found a replay of the goal, and smiled as Tkachuk slid across the ice, 4.9 seconds away from the Stanley Cup Final. I'll be watching those games, because MY Panthers are a team of destiny and they will knock out the Vegas Golden Knights (probably? Can the Dallas Stars come back from 3-0 down? I surely don't know!) to lift the Cup. It won't mean as much to me as it will to the devoted Panthers fans, those who have been trekking out to Sawgrass Mills for years, but that's fine. I don't need it to. I am just glad to be along for Mr. Tkachuk's wild ride.

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