SUNRISE, Fla. (CBSMiami/AP) — The Florida Panthers will be honoring Jose Fernandez with custom-made jerseys ahead of Thursday night’s season opener.
During their pre-game warmups before the matchup with the New Jersey Devils, the Panthers will be wearing identical No. 16 jerseys, with “Fernandez” on the back. It was the number the 24-year-old wore as the Miami Marlins ace pitcher before his accidental death last month in a boating crash.
The team also had helmet decals made with a No. 16 set within a home plate icon.
The moment will be bittersweet for fans as the Panthers will also be unveiling their Atlantic Division championship banner from last year.
For players, though, it’s a reminder of missed opportunities.
“It’s cool that there’s a banner going up,” said winger Shawn Thornton. “But in my opinion, there’s only one banner that counts.”
There’s still no Stanley Cup in the Panthers’ collection, a void the team thinks it has a legitimate shot at filling this season. Boasting a mix of veterans — Jaromir Jagr is 44 and led the team in scoring last season, Thornton is likely going into his last season at 39, goalie Roberto Luongo is 37 and still seeking his first touch of hockey’s chalice — and a talented young core, expectations are probably higher around Florida than ever.
Luongo thinks even the division banner will serve as a motivator.
“I think more than anything it’s going to remind everybody of the work that you need to put in to be successful in the regular season,” Luongo said. “It’s a long year. It’s a grind. It’s not something that just happens. You have to put in the work. You have to sacrifice.”
Luongo even being on the ice for opening night shows that he put in plenty of work.
He had hip surgery in May and the Panthers were far from convinced this summer that their No. 1 goalie would be ready to go when the games started counting for real. They even made certain deals this offseason with the belief that Luongo might be sidelined for the early portion of the regular season, doing so out of an abundance of caution.
But Luongo went through an aggressive rehab program and got back on the ice in plenty of time for camp and the season.
“I wouldn’t have known exactly what to expect,” Luongo said, when asked if he would have guessed in May that he would be ready in October. “But it’s here and we’re excited. I think as a group, we want to get it going and start off on the right foot. It’s like a kid on Christmas Eve.”
Panthers coach Gerard Gallant wasn’t surprised that Luongo was ready this soon.
“I know Louie works hard in the offseason and works hard with his therapy,” Gallant said. “So no, I was expecting him to be ready.”
Florida is coming off the best regular season in franchise history — with club records for wins (47), points (103) and a 12-game winning streak in there as well.
Even though the postseason ended in the first round, the Panthers know they aren’t looked upon as doormats any more.
“Everybody knows we’re a good team,” Gallant said. “We’re not going to sneak up on anybody. The last two year’s results were positive results and anybody that comes in here knows that they have to play well to beat us.”
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