SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are averaging 12,636 fans this season, a 74.2-percent-of-capacity number that ranks higher than only two other teams in the NHL.
One of those teams, the New York Islanders, can't seem to find a quadrant of the New York metropolitan area that is very interested in them and is planning yet another move, this time to Queens. The other, perennially league-worst Carolina, has not played a postseason game in eight full seasons.
Shayne Gostisbehere, a native son weaned in the youth hockey league program that the Panthers began, in part, to weave their way into the community, says "it bothers me a little bit'' when he reads about the apathy.
"I hold them close to my heart,'' he said after Thursday's morning skate at BB&T Center. "They're a big part of my hockey career.''
"But I grew up with it. I've seen the empty seats.''
Gostisbehere, who expects to have a huge group of family and friends attend Thursday night's game here against the Panthers, grew up in nearby Margate and played in the Junior Panthers program until he left to play for a Connecticut prep school at age 16.
"They were all I knew growing up,'' he said. "It was a great organization. We had great ties with the Panthers. For us to practice at their practice rink. … We'd come here, watch games. It was awesome.
"The Panthers did a great job of instilling hockey in Florida. It's not a hockey state per se. but as the game grew, they offered kids my age a chance to play it. All my best friends are still playing hockey. And I'm here. It's cool. It's very unique. People ask me where I'm from, whether I'm from Canada. And I say I'm from Florida, and you get a look.''
Gostisbehere was the first player from South Florida to participate in an NHL game. A few have trickled in since, but it has done little to spike prolonged interest in the Panthers, who just three seasons ago finished first in the Atlantic Division with 103 points. That year, the Panthers finished ahead of just six teams in average attendance.
Tampa, in contrast, has finished in the top 10 over the last four seasons, even when it failed to reach the playoffs last season.
"I mean, Florida has been a bandwagon state for a while,'' Gostisbehere said. "Especially down south. I'm pretty sure if you go to Miami Heat games right now, they're not going to be packed. But a couple of years ago, they were.''