How many times have you attended a professional sports contest on a patriotic game-day promotion, and the home franchise proudly waves the flag and parades out a group of men and women connected to the Armed Forces … but it feels like virtue signaling? It happens. However, some teams put the proverbial money-in-the-mouth, always.
Weightless gestures aren’t part of the makeup of the NHL’s Florida Panthers. The South Florida hockey team’s front office is staffed with veterans. And the requisite measurable required for effective soldiering are tethered to the organization’s culture.
“The inherent sense of discipline that comes with serving, caring for our community and the ability to operate and take risks under really ambiguous circumstances is part of our organization’s DNA,” said Panthers’ chief operating officer Bryce Hollweg in an email sent to Military Families Magazine.
Leading the charge for veterans is a real cause for the Sunrise, Florida-based franchise. And with the team playing against the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the 2023 Stanley Cup Final, their Cup playoff run has provided an opportunity to highlight veterans on a bigger platform.
“And so for us, you know, I think we looked at every time we made the playoffs, and especially as we’ve continued to move forward, we understand that there’s a tremendous opportunity and a platform to spotlight some unbelievable stories.” Matt Smith, community relations manager for the Florida Panthers, told Military Families Magazine.
In a late April home playoff game against the Boston Bruins, the Panthers honored 100-year-old World War II Army veteran Harold Logan, who served as a corporal in the China Burma India Theater. And there was 102-year-old Harry Chandler, another World War II veteran who is a Pearl Harbor survivor exuding the energy of someone much younger, Smith said.
“So game three of the series against Boston, we honored a gentleman by the name of Harry Chandler… And this gentleman, I mean, had never been to a hockey game before,” Smith said. “So this was his first hockey game, and, you know, he was just completely blown away. And I think he, through this moment, he kind of kicked off our Stanley Cup playoff run.”
At the decisive fourth game of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Carolina Hurricanes, the team commemorated 106-year-old World War II Lt. Commander Ludwig Savarese, a Coast Guard veteran. The Italian-born officer survived several submarine attacks and rescued a machinist when their ship, the Morgantown Victory, was hit.
“He’s the oldest veteran that we’ve honored here with the Florida Panthers,” Smith said. “You know, he didn’t want the spotlight. But I think what was unique about Ludwig is he made sure to let his family know and let me know this wasn’t about him. This was about making sure that he carried on the memory of those that didn’t make it back from World War II.”
The Panthers have also brought veteran hockey to South Florida, instilling a sense of pride and belonging in the veterans who participate. The Panthers Warriors Hockey Program was developed to assist veterans battling physical or mental challenges resulting from their service.
“The Panther Warriors are an extension of the Florida Panthers – in the way they play, treat their opponents and care for their teammates and community,” Hollweg said. “Creating that locker room environment where you are playing with people you trust, respect and rely on – just like in a combat zone.”
Each year the Panthers and/or veteran Panther team executives join the Warriors in the annual Memorial Day IceDen hockey tournament.
“Ryan Lomberg (Panther left wing) frequently attends and supports the team at the annual Memorial Day tournament,” the COO said. “We are as just as proud to be part of the Panther Warriors as they are to be part of the Florida Panthers.”
Smith said the Panthers are also contributing funds via their goaltenders and Amerant Bank during the regular and postseason. For each puck stopped by Sergei Bobrovsky and Alex Lyon, Amerant donates $40. The fund has amassed more than $100,000 this year.
“That’s the cool part too, is as those saves are being made it’s a win on the ice, but it’s also a win off the ice knowing every single save that’s been made during the playoffs is impacting veterans,” Smith said.”
Yet, it’s away from the arena when the organization’s achievements resemble something greater than winning seasons, playoff victories and 82 games on the ice.
“The success on the ice is unbelievable, and we love it,” Smith said. “The success is off the ice and seeing those that are currently serving and being able to go down and visit them and go up to the VA and provide hygiene kits and visit them for the holidays. Those will continue as we are committed to serving service members who are active duty and those who are veterans. So that won’t change no matter the success on the ice.”