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Plastic rats lie on the ice as the Florida Panthers celebrate their win against the New Jersey Devils following their NHL Eastern conference quarterfinal playoff hockey game 2 in Sunrise, Florida April 15, 2012. (RHONA WISE/REUTERS/Rhona Wise)
Plastic rats lie on the ice as the Florida Panthers celebrate their win against the New Jersey Devils following their NHL Eastern conference quarterfinal playoff hockey game 2 in Sunrise, Florida April 15, 2012. (RHONA WISE/REUTERS/Rhona Wise)

Panthers fans can finally <br>bring back the rats</br> Add to ...

Frank Rekas has been an NHL season ticket holder for 14 long years, and until Sunday night, he had never seen his team win a playoff game from those seats.

Welcome to life as a fan of the Florida Panthers, whose win over the New Jersey Devils in Game 2 was the franchise's first since beating Wayne Gretzky and the New York Rangers on April 17, 1997.

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Nevermind a lengthy Stanley Cup drought – that's a span of 5,478 days or 1,157 games (only nine of which were in the postseason) without a postseason win.

In a league where more than half of the teams make the playoffs, the Panthers play in a weak division and parity is at an all-time high, that's pretty hard to do.

"Other than the Stanley Cup run in 1996, this has been one of the most exciting years the Panthers have had," Rekas said. "While there has been a time or two that we threatened to make a postseason run, this team has been one of the best group of players in quite some time."

Rekas moved to the Fort Lauderdale area from Chicago in 1993, so he comes by his hockey fandom honestly. Now he runs the website, TheRatTrick.com, dedicated to all things Panthers, and was given a full media credential beginning this season.

He is one of the hardy few who have hung on as a season ticket holder year after playoff-less year, mostly because he just enjoys watching and writing about hockey.

Even through the longest postseason drought in NHL history.

"I've stayed loyal as a fan because I love the sport, and no matter what, I believe in supporting a team through the good times and the bad, even though there have been a lot of bad times," he said.

"I've always been objective when I talk about the Panthers recent history, and while some people may not agree with me about how I see the game, it boils down to one thing and one thing only: I want the team and organization to do well. I just want to win, cause I can't stand losing."



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After the Panthers won their game on Sunday and rats littered the ice, I put out the call on Twitter for long-time fans of the team to respond with their stories of cheering for such a sad sack franchise for so long.

To my surprise, there were even a few Canadians who have been Panthers supporters for years, with Peterborough, Ont., native Jeff Lingard saying he has followed the team for nearly 20 years and attends one Florida game a year in either Toronto or Ottawa.

"The Panthers came along when I was in high school," Lingard said of the team's expansion season in 1993. "[Former Peterborough Petes coach] Roger Neilson was the coach, and they played like a house league team rolling four lines. And they made the finals in the third year which kind of sealed the deal [of becoming a fan]

"Sometimes you just like a team and you stick with them. It's been a tough decade or so but it will be that much sweeter as they become more successful with the guys coming down the pipe like [Jonathan]Huberdeau, [Jacob]Markstrom, [Nick]Bjustad, etc."

To the few, proud Panthers out there, new GM Dale Tallon and coach Kevin Dineen are miracle workers for turning things around so quickly.

This was a team, after all, that drafted Huberdeau third overall last summer and looked miles away from a playoff berth when the season opened after adding a misfit toys group of free agents and castoffs to the roster.

That it's worked out so well is hard to believe for one of professional sports longest suffering fan bases.

As for all the rats that littered the ice Sunday, those have been a long time coming, too, as the tradition that started during that unlikely run to the finals 16 years ago is slowly coming back.

"While my arm is still good, I don't think I could toss a rat onto the ice from the press box," Rekas said. "But I know some friends who did and that's good enough for me."

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