Let me open with some disclosure here.
First of all, as a lifelong Buffalonian, I have a thin skin when it comes to slams about our weather. I love the four seasons, our summers are wonderful, and I shake my head in amazement as to why people live in climes where they bake and swelter all summer, or have to deal with the constant threat of horrific natural disasters. We take more guff from out of town people, many of whom have never even visited our part of the world, and we don’t deserve it.
Second, I am not a fan of placing NHL franchises in cities where they are not appreciated or supported. This is not a criticism of South Florida, per se, but I am a firm believer that the sport we love becomes instantly better with teams sited in Quebec City, Seattle, Hartford, or even Halifax, rather than locales such as Glendale, Sunrise or Atlanta.
When the Thrashers moved from Atlanta to Winnipeg, my USRT partner Peter Farrell and I could not wait to head up there, to mingle with the fans and the civic leaders who helped make it happen, and to just soak in the city vibe of a community that was thrilled to have their beloved NHL hockey back.
By the way, the temperature in Winnipeg never got higher than -1 Fahrenheit on that journey. We wouldn’t have had it any other way.
So this past weekend, prior to the start of the Buffalo Sabres/Florida Panthers game at the BB&T Center, they dimmed the lights to begin the pregame intros. The first image on the video board? A picture of massive amounts of snow, set to scary and somber music. I turned to Buffalo News hockey writer John Vogl, seated in the press box next to me, and said, “Here we go again”.
The Panthers did not let me down. The video continued with dramatic scenes of stranded cars, people buried, sights that we WNYers are all too familiar with when these occasional lake effects deluge us. Then juxtaposed with the pics was Stanley Panther, the team mascot, happily frolicking in South Florida on a spectacular sunny day.
The 1500 or so in attendance at puck drop time, or at least the portion of the fans that were locals, might have been amused. I wasn’t.
My instant reaction? “This is supposed to be funny? This was no ordinary storm. People died. Tens of thousands of lives were affected.”.
I immediately took to Twitter, expressing my displeasure and outrage, interspersed with a twinge of sarcasm, and put it out squarely at the Florida Panthers front office. Former Artvoice hockey writer Suzanne Taylor, who was in attendance and seated in the “crowd”, alertly took a video of the presentation and captured most of it, then posted it on her Facebook feed.
Here is a sampling of some of my commentary:
What happened next was pretty amazing. News of the rogue Panthers video started pinging all over social media, with all of this starting thanks to the initial posts that Suzanne and I published. Interestingly, fans and media back in Buffalo, most of whom had not actually seen the video but learned of it via our posts, were similarly pissed off. Mind you, everyone in WNY, those living in the snow band and outside, were affected in some way. There are literally thousands of stories of people rescuing friends, neighbors, and family, pitching in to help out, dealing with the damage and loss of property, of income from work, and in the saddest of cases, the loss of loved ones.
By the first intermission, a few local media organizations from Buffalo, and even a couple national media outlets, namely Puckdaddy and NBC Sports, had picked up on the story. The tale of the rogue video had now gone viral.
I spent the second period tending to this story more than the action on the ice. Stafford scored, Gionta scored. The Panthers got a late goal to take a 3-2 lead. No matter. I was in the thick of all this, and there would be no turning back.
During the second intermission I left my chair to take a call in the pressbox concourse area where it was not as noisy. As I am standing there, who walks by but Sabres owner Terry Pegula and GM Tim Murray. About 30 seconds later out walks Panthers GM Dale Tallon from his booth, and right in the middle of that pressbox concourse the three men are engaged in an animated discussion, in full and prominent view of all the media and pressbox staff. I kept a respectful distance, wishing the entire time I could be a fly on the wall. Tallon looked pretty grim, and it was Pegula and Murray doing most of the talking. I could only speculate that the topic of conversation was that video.
My speculation was confirmed when I returned to my chair. Respected Miami Herald sports writer George Richards got a drift of that conversation as he passed by, and this is what he tweeted.
Whether Pegula and Murray were immediately angered when they saw the video, or were alerted to all the kerfuffle on social media and traditional media via their PR staffers who travel with the team, is a matter for speculation. But their reaction was the correct one. They had Buffalo’s back and they should be thanked and admired for resolutely speaking out to the Panthers’ top management.
The Panthers shtick about their weather is nothing new. Back in the days before 360 ribbon boards took over the balcony rims, the team had a “weather board” display in one end zone, posting the conditions of the home and visiting teams. It went something like this: “Sunrise 82, glorious. Buffalo 11, bitter.”
I was always amused as to why the home team would be antagonizing their out of town visitors this way, as if to say, “Isn’t it great here? It must suck to be you.” But whatever. It was a part of the charm and lore of going there.
But this video crossed the line. And this wasn’t some off-the-cuff tweet sent out by a young PR intern. This video took scripting, planning, and execution by more than a few of the Panthers’ game ops personnel. One has to wonder, at any time did even one staffer beg the question, “Are we taking this too far?”
Can you even fathom something similar to Hurricane Andrew from back in 1992, and the Sabres attempting to turn that into a funny video? Imagine this script – scenes from Miami and Ft Lauderdale of flattened homes, people in the streets in search of aid and shelter, and all the while back in Buffalo there is Sabretooth, intertwined into the clip, happily enjoying a lazy, sunny, late summer day at Canalside. Producing and presenting something like that would truly be beyond the pale.
It will be interesting to see if the Panthers front office will take any further action. Or perhaps they will just ignore this matter and hope it all goes away. Which it will.
But the lesson here, for all teams, is that they have to do a better job in managing the game day event experience. Long gone is the day when going to a sporting venue meant seeing a scoreboard with line scores and the occasional card shuffle or silly contest, displayed in 1.0 graphics on a dot matrix board.
Today’s presentation is an elaborate display of videos, of music bumps, lighting, special effects. And there is more. In more and more places fans can instantly interact with the team, the venue, even the players, via social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are becoming an even more integral part of the game experience and in game entertainment. Teams hire a phalanx of “social media assistants”, most young, many being college grads in sports management, and most a year or so removed from their stints as unpaid interns, to work the games in real time. The potential for disaster in this age of instant reporting and communications is enormous.
The Florida Panthers don’t deserve tar and feathers. Nobody went out and strangled puppies. It was a lapse in judgment, plain and simple. Let’s hope they man up as an organization, do the right thing, and apologize.