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Panthers turn 20 in style at home

Whip Penguins 6-3 on anniversary

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SUNRISE, Fla. -- It was 1992.

Bill Torrey, the iconic architect of the New York Islanders Stanley Cup dynasty team of the early 1980s, moved to Florida to retire and play golf, when he got a call from Blockbuster mogul and then Miami Dolphins minority owner H. Wayne Huizenga, asking him if he thought South Florida was ready for an NHL franchise.

Skate ahead to the summer of '93.

Craig Ramsay was finishing up loose ends to a season as the Buffalo Sabres assistant general manager when he got a call from his close friend and freshly fired Rangers coach Roger Neilson, asking him if he'd be his associate coach of the Panthers.

Billy Lindsay was 22, coming off his first NHL season with the Quebec Nordiques and had just finished playing golf with three of his former junior teammates from the Tri-City (Wash.) Americans -- Stu Barnes, Scott Levins and longtime Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig -- when he got a call from his agent informing him the Panthers had selected him with their 38th pick of the expansion draft.

All three phone calls led directly to the aforementioned trio becoming integral parts of Florida Panthers history.

Two decades later all three are still employed by the team that celebrated its 20th birthday with a stirring, 6-3 home-opening victory over the Penguins Friday night.

"It almost didn't happen because (then Disney CEO Michael Eisner) didn't have a facility for the Ducks, and the NHL wasn't going to bring in one team," said Torrey, 79, the team president for nine years and then alternate governor until new co-owner Douglas Cifu took the title last month.

Torrey made many of the personnel decisions, along with Neilson, Ramsay and then-GM Bobby Clarke, that led to the magical, rat-filled Stanley Cup final run of 1996.

"There was real excitement for the game again when I brought (GM Dale Tallon) in and we made the playoffs, but unfortunately, we got hit with the lockout when we had momentum building again," Torrey said.

"I see the excitement again with (Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov) and the signing of Timmy Thomas. I see the light. It's dimmed, but it's never gone out."

The lights almost went out on Ramsay, who after saying yes to Neilson, his late friend, wasn't able to get to South Florida in time for training camp because he began bleeding internally in Buffalo.

He headed south for the start of that first season, but had a relapse. After needing 32 pints of blood to live, which is about 22 pints more than a healthy male carries, and the removal of his stomach, Ramsay finally felt good enough to join the Panthers on Dec. 26.

"They called in a priest; my family was at my bedside," said Ramsay, 62, who left the Panthers after the '95 season but returned to be coach Kevin Dineen's assistant in 2011. "I was dead, and dead is no fun.

"That ('93 season) was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I've been in the business for 43 years. To be part of picking that first team, that will never happen again."

Panthers assistant coach Gord Murphy, taken 15th in that draft, scored a goal in the first game, a 4-4 tie with the Blackhawks.

Brian Skrudland, the Panthers' first captain, selected 32nd, was all smiles Friday, as he watched Huberdeau and Barkov score goals, kids he's helped nurture in his role as the team's director of player development.

Lindsay has been the Panthers television analyst since 2009.

"I knew I was unprotected, but I didn't think a new team would select young kids," said Lindsay, a British Columbia native. "When I saw Scott later at the gym, I told him I got picked by the Panthers and he said, 'No kidding, so did I (at 27th).' "

-- Sun Sentinel

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2013 B2

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