Florida Panthers leave their beachfront home for a few days in the Rocky Mountains | VailDaily.com

Florida Panthers leave their beachfront home for a few days in the Rocky Mountains

Matt Zalaznick

The team is the Florida Panthers, they play their home games a few miles west of Ft. Lauderdale and they’re most well-known in Colorado for losing the Stanley Cup to Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Uwe Krupp and the Avalanche in 1996 – a game that was played in the middle of June, a few miles west of Miami Beach.

And this week, hundreds of hockey fans, and even some expatriate Parrotheads – a.k.a. native Floridians – flocked to Vail’s Dobson Arena to watch the fair-weather Panthers get some high-altitude training during mud season.

“Florida is a beautiful place and the fans are awesome because a lot of people there are from New York,” said Panthers star forward Valerie Bure. “For us, any time you get a day off, you look outside and it’s 80-plus degrees and it’s sunny.”

Bure was of course referring to the numerous amount of Floridians who grew up in real hockey towns such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

The Panthers, who wrapped up four days of training at Dobson Thursday, are the latest in a string of NHL teams that have come to Vail to gear up for hockey season. The Montreal Canadiens were here earlier this month and the Dallas Stars trained at Dobson two years ago.

The teams claim they come to train at high altitude, though most doctors say a hockey player won’t build up that many extra red blood cells after just five days at 8,150 feet above sea level.

“It’s an energizing environment,” Panthers coach Mike Keenan said after Thursday’s workout. “It’s a small community, a player can utilize his time with his teammates and it’s a good environment to train in.”

Keenan has coached several NHL teams –including the New York Rangers, the Boston Bruins, the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers – and says he’s taken cold-weather teams to train in warm-weather cities.

“I’ve taken teams to warmer climates as well. It works good in the opposite direction, too,” said Keenan, who won the Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994 and ranks fourth among NHL coaches in all-time wins.

So does anybody know how to ice skate in Florida?

“Damn few,” said Avon resident and Minnesota native Ted Springer while watching Thursday morning’s skate. “They’re probably getting a pretty quick education down there in Florida but my guess is they’re way behind Minnesota, which has over 90 girls hockey teams.”

But Doug Adel, an Edwards resident who is originally from Ft. Lauderdale, was on hand to defend the much-maligned hockey fans of Florida – the same state that brought the world Elian Gonzalez and dimpled chads.

“If I was a hockey player, I’d rather be in Florida than in Minnesota,” Adel said. “During the day you can play golf.”

So how is Adel on the ice?

“I can skate, but I can’t play hockey,” he said. “I’m trying to learn.”

Springer and Adel then dropped the gloves and were both given five minutes for fighting and game misconducts. While stewing in their respective penalty boxes, the two opined that Vail has reached new heights in the lofty world of resort town status symbols – folks are now bringing their own pro sports teams to town to show off to their billionaire friends.

Owners of both the Panthers and the Canadiens own homes in the Valley.

“I’ve been asked to sponsor a team but I don’t own my own team,” Adel said.

“If we had a hockey team,” said Springer’s daughter, Barb Beck, “we’d bring them here, too.”

Thursday morning’s soggy and brief snowstorm did not rouse the still slumbering ski gods to open Vail Mountain. But that’s OK with the Panthers because the slopes are strictly off-limits to hockey players – particularly their knees.

“I used to ski but it’s almost impossible to get out, especially in Miami,” said Panthers rookie defenseman Kyle Rossiter, who’s originally from Edmonton, Alberta. “When I played in Salt Lake City, one of the team rules was no skiing.”

While Florida may not be a traditional hockey hotbed, Rossiter said there are some definite advantages to skating in Florida. The average temperature in Edmonton in February is 10 degrees below zero. In Florida, it’s about 75.

Panther defenseman Joey Tetarenko, a native of Saskatchewan, agreed.

“You don’t have to plug in your car overnight or warm it up for 20 minutes before you can touch the steering wheel in Florida,” Tetarenko said. “And you walk out of the arena after a game and you’re sweating rather than freezing.”

So do you know how far above sea-level you are?

“8,500 feet?” Tetarenko guessed. “We rode up the gondola and it’s some very pretty country. It always puts you in a good mood being at the top of a mountain.”

And the change in altitude?

“I feel better today than the last two days,” Rossiter said. “The first day was a real struggle, it was a real struggle to fall asleep.”

So how far above sea level is Vail?

“8,200, right?” Rossiter said.

The Panthers’ trip to Vail wasn’t all about training. The team had a little golf tournament at Cordillera and a few fancy dinners, said goalie Roberto Luongo.

“As a group, we really get a chance to bond,” Luongo said. “And Vail’s a beautiful place to live. It must be gorgeous in the winter time.”

While some players said they’d like to take a mountain bike up the mountain or hike a fourtneer, they all agreed practice was the main purpose of the trip.

“It’s not a vacation,” said Panthers forward Viktor Kozlov, who is from Russia. “I never ski. I play tennis, that’s it.”

“Snowmobiling is really cool,” said Bure, who a native of Moscow.

So what do you guys think about mud season?

“It’s still very pretty here,” Bure said.

Matt Zalaznick, a native of Miami Beach, does not know how to ice skate. He played water polo in high school, which is a lot like hockey, except in a pool and all the fights take place underwater.

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