SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Gerard Gallant now coaches in a place where home games are parties, practices are attended by hundreds of fans and he can’t get into restaurants unnoticed.
He hoped all that would happen in Florida.
It’s all part of his new reality with Vegas.
Gallant coached at Florida on Friday night for the first time since getting fired by the Panthers in November 2016, but the return wans’t as he would have liked — his Vegas Golden Knights lost to the Panthers 4-3 on Aaron Ekblad’s goal 40 seconds into overtime.
“It’s never personal,” said Gallant, who already seems like a lock to win NHL coach of the year honors for what he’s done with a first-year Vegas club. “I had 2 1/2 great years here. I enjoyed every minute of it. They gave me a chance to be a head coach again in the NHL, and like I said, it was a lot of fun and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
There was a nostalgic feel to the whole night in Florida, first because the Panthers paid tribute to their founder and former owner Wayne Huizenga in a pregame ceremony — plans for which the franchise announced publicly weeks ago. Florida revealed a banner with Huizenga’s name and the now-retired number 37, a tribute to his lucky number and birth year of 1937.
The other trip down memory lane was a bit of a surprise.
The Panthers played a tribute video for Gallant during a first-period stoppage of play. Gallant looked up at the giant scoreboard over center ice to see the video, heard the ovation, gave the fans a wave — and that only led to a louder ovation, some of those in attendance standing.
“It means a lot,” said Gallant, who still owns a home on the opposite side of Florida about two hours from the Panthers’ home facility. “I enjoyed my time here. It was great. We had successful seasons, I thought, and played real well and the fans were real good to me. So it’s too bad what happened, but again, I enjoyed my time and I love it here.”
There’s only four banners that commemorate a true hockey accomplishment hanging over the Panthers’ home ice: One is for the 1996 Eastern Conference title, another is for the 2011-12 Southeast Division crown, a third is for the 2015-16 Atlantic Division championship and the other touts how Florida had more wins than any expansion team in NHL history.
Gallant is responsible for the 2015-16 banner.
He might also be responsible if the Panthers take the one from their expansion season down.
Vegas is on pace to smash what Florida did in its inaugural season, when Huizenga helped put together a club that finished with 33 wins and 83 points. After Friday, Vegas has 30 wins and 64 points with roughly half the season left to play. The Golden Knights have gone from a newborn to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in months.
“They’re a good team,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “They’re not surprising anybody anymore.”
The Panthers have been around for 25 years, and Gallant is one of 15 coaches in that span — and one of only three to win a postseason game with Florida. No NHL franchise has changed coaches more often than Florida over the last quarter-century, and the team hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996.
Gallant seemed like the one who would change all that.
He led Florida to that division championship in 2016, before an offseason where the Panthers would change much of their roster and organizational approach — and many of those changes were not warmly received by Gallant. It was a horribly kept secret that a parting of the ways was inevitable, and after 22 games last season the firing took place following a loss at Carolina.
Gallant got his bags off the team bus that night and loaded them into a hastily called taxi. He and the Panthers have largely gone in opposite directions since.
“The first two weeks were real tough and after that some teams showed interest in me, but after that it was fine,” Gallant said. “I moved on.”