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Closing Shot: The Year Of The Rat

As the Florida Panthers look to exterminate a pesky playoff mark, we look back at how their last successful postseason run launched a ‘rat trick’ tradition.

By Alex Silverman
The team scooped up a sponsor in Orkin to help round up the plastic rats that fans tossed onto the ice.getty images

The Florida Panthers entered the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs as the top team in the NHL, giving fans hope that the franchise’s decadeslong postseason winless streak for a series is nearing an end. The drought dates to 1996, known in team lore as the Year of the Rat.

Prior to the team’s home opener for the 1995-96 season at Miami Arena, Panthers winger Scott Mellanby killed a rat that had invaded the team’s locker room by shooting it against the wall with his stick. After Mellanby scored twice against the Calgary Flames that night, Panthers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck jokingly referred to the feat as a “rat trick.” 

When a fan threw a plastic rat onto the ice during the next game, it started a phenomenon.  

“The smartest thing that we did with that was to not get in its way,” said Dean Jordan, who led business operations for the Panthers under founding owner Wayne Huizenga from the team’s inception in 1993 through 1998. “It was something organic. It was started by the fans. The last thing we needed to do was try to tack on more gimmicks to take advantage of the ‘rat trick.’” 

Still, the replica rodents (and occasionally a live one) had to be picked up off the ice after each showering, and the team saw an opportunity to capitalize on the sponsorship front. Their first call was to Truly Nolen, a Miami-based pest control company whose yellow vehicles adorned with mouse ears and whiskers were well-known around town. 

“They had no interest in it,” Jordan recalled. “I was really upset because I wanted the little truck running around the ice.” 

It only took one more call, however, for the Panthers to find a taker in Orkin. The company provided the team’s on-ice cleanup crew with Orkin-branded hard hats and overalls, and the Orkin Rat Patrol was born. It was a perfect fit and remains a memorable image of the most successful season in franchise history. 

The Panthers emerged as one of the NHL’s top teams that season, and every Panthers goal would be followed by a shower of rats, leading to lengthy delays. Opposing teams lobbied for delay-of-game penalties, but Jordan credited NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman for understanding the “rat trick” was too good to exterminate.

“Gary always threatened it, but he was savvy,” Jordan said. “He was not going to stop that. People would die to have that kind of marketing advantage.” 

The one restriction the league put in place was that the Panthers couldn’t directly provide or sell the plastic rats to fans. But the team found a way around that.  “We would collect them and put them in our recycling bins, but for some reason our team just never got them to the recycler,” Jordan said with a wink. “They left them outside the arena, and people would just pick them up.”

The Panthers won three playoff series that year before being swept in the Stanley Cup Final by the Colorado Avalanche. They haven’t won a round since. 

Twenty-six years later, Jordan, now an executive with Wasserman, is watching from his home in Raleigh, hoping “his” Panthers can make some new history.

“I’d love for people to never have to say again, ‘Well, the last playoff series they won, in 1996 …”

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