SPORTS AND TRAGEDIES-A SOURCE OF HEALING AND ESCAPE

Following my last article which was written on Super Bowl Sunday, I went on hiatus to tend to some family business. I know that I promised a return of this past Wednesday, however circumstances moved it back until today. My wife and I were visiting my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter last week. The first anniversary of my son, Justin’s death was last Wednesday. Yes, it was Wednesday February 14, the same day that fourteen students and three staff members were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

We were at our daughter’s house when the news broke. We were far away from our home which is roughly a fifteen minute drive from the school, but it still struck very close to home to all of us. The events of February 14th that rocked Parkland, Broward County, South Florida and all of the United States led to the delay of my return.

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One of many vigils held around South Florida following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

In the middle of all this craziness, I would be remiss if I didn’t congratulate the Super Bowl 52 champion Philadelphia Eagles!

Here’s is the reason why I failed to published on Wednesday. Broward County’s only professional sports team, the NHL’s Florida Panthers were on their longest road trip of the season when the shooting occurred. As many of you hockey fans here in the east know, there is a long road swing to Western Canada that all of our teams have on our schedules.

The Panthers began their road swing in Edmonton last Monday. Florida is in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, and the trip began on a high note. In a wild game the Florida defeated the Oilers 7-5, little did anyone know that the rest of this trip would turn very different, and a playoff berth would take a distant back seat.

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The Vancouver Canucks hold a moment of silence prior to their game with the Florida Panthers on the night of the Stoneman Douglas shooting.

On Wednesday, the Panthers, much like myself and my family got the news from afar. The team was on the second stop of their Western Canadian tour. They were diagonally across North America in Vancouver when the story broke. Many of the Florida Panthers and their staff live in and around Parkland. The BB&T Center in Sunrise, the Panthers home, is a stone’s throw south along the Sawgrass Expressway from Stoneman Douglas High School. The team’s practice facility is located in the neighboring town of Coral Springs.

Not only did the Panthers show up to the Rogers Arena in Vancouver that night, they won a very big game in the standings. Stops in Calgary, Winnipeg, and Toronto awaited the team before being able to head home and tend to the community. The NHL being a big family supported the traveling Cats. Moments of silence were held in both Calgary and Toronto in addition to the one in Vancouver.

So here’s why I didn’t publish on Wednesday. The Panthers were due to return home this past Thursday. I am a Florida Panthers season ticket holder, so I decided to return with a chronicle of Thursday night’s events.

Thursday night’s game between the Panthers and the Washington Capitals was played in an atmosphere unlike any other hockey game I have ever attended. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the BB&T Center, there is a huge plaza located outside of the arena. On game nights, the plaza, known as the Jet Blue Runway is usually abuzz with music and games. It was relatively quiet on this night outside the arena. The three massive flagpoles that normally proudly fly the American flag, the Florida State flag, and the Florida Panthers flag were eerily at half mast. The only sounds were made by fans chattering and BB&T Center staff directing people and announcing the building’s security policies.

When I got inside I was greeted by a combination of Stoneman Douglas students and Panthers cheerleaders donning Stoneman Douglas t-shirts. My usual next stop was the team’s 50/50 raffle. Tonight the proceeds of the raffle would go to the MSD Fund to aid the victims. With the help of the NHL the jackpot soared to over $97,000! There was also a silent auction, a separate donation booth, and a blood drive being held.

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Panthers star goaltender, and Parkland resident Roberto Luongo addresses the crowd at the BB&T Center and everywhere else where people were watching, 2/22/18.

The victims of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting’s names are projected onto the BB&T Center ice during a stirring pre-game ceremony.

The pregame ceremony was one that will stay with me for a very long time, possibly for as long as I live. It opened with a video depicting all seventeen victims, one at a time, on the giant video board at center ice. Panthers broadcaster Randy Moeller was the emcee of an emotional, tear-jerking program that featured the victims names projected onto the ice. Moeller’s portion of the ceremony ended with him asking the crowd to pause for silent devotion, during which the arena went dark.

Following the devotion time, Panthers’ goaltender Roberto Luongo skated from the bench to the ice. I thought that he was leading the team onto the ice and that the ceremony was over. Boy was I wrong! Luongo took to the mic and addressed the crowd. The Parkland resident and future Hall of Famer choked back tears as he told all that were listening that he has been a resident for 12 years and will continue to live there the rest of his life. He wrapped up his remarks by telling Parkland residents that the Panthers organization is there for anything anyone in the community needs.

The Panthers did a great job of rallying around the South Florida community on Thursday night. One thing that seemed very strange was the absence of advertisements. The usual advertisements along the boards and on the scoreboard were replaced by MSD Stong signs. The Panthers organization made it clear that this was a night for healing and remembrance.

Then came the game itself. Luongo fresh off the emotional speech in the pre-game ceremony, was dominant. He stopped 33 of 35 shots in the game, including a first period in which he admitted later on that he wasn’t in the zone. I certainly didn’t notice.

Panthers’ rookie Maxim Mamin scored his first NHL goal to open the scoring on this emotional night. Florida captain (and Parkland resident) Derek MacKenzie energized the already emotional crowd when he mixed it up with Brooks Orpick.

Washington took a 2-1 lead into the third period. Florida seemed like they just couldn’t solve Capital goaltender Braden Holtby through most of the final stanza. Then it happened!

It is on nights like this that the unexpected tends to happen. What began to unfold late in the third period brought me back to a late September night in New York’s Shea Stadium in 2001. With about four minutes left in the game Aleksander Barkov took the puck from around the center ice area and skated through what seemed to be the entire Capitals lineup (I’m sure that I’m exaggerating). Barkov fired a shot that deflected off of the skate of Nick Bjugstad and into the net! The BB&T Center was electric!, can they pull this off in overtime?

Keep that night in New York aside for a moment. With 52 seconds remaining in the third period, Washington’s Lars Eller was called for an interference penalty. The Panthers power play had been on a tear through most of the Canadian road swing. The power play unit made history on this night.

In 2001, at Shea Stadium in New York, the Mets hosted the first sporting event in the city since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That game ended with the now iconic walk off home run by Mike Piazza to defeat the Atlanta Braves. On this night in Sunrise, at the first sporting event in Broward County since the tragedy in Parkland, the Florida Panthers did the same thing.

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Florida Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck scores the winning goal with 18.7 seconds remaining to defeat the Washington Capitals during the first sporting event in Broward County following the shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

With time running out in regulation defenseman Keith Yandle fed Jonathan Huberdeau in the Washington zone. Huberdeau would shoot the puck which was deflected into the net by Vincent Trocheck with 18.7 seconds remaining! The Florida Panthers, down 2-1 with a little more than three minutes left on the clock, would not be denied! What a night for South Florida! What a night for Parkland!

Much like Mike Piazza’s heroics in 2001 was a shot in the arm for all New Yorkers, Trocheck’s goal was just as strong for South Florida. It capped the longest, strangest road home for the Panthers. It gave all of those associated with the Parkland school something to cheer about. I’ll never forget the release I felt when that puck went past Holtby and into the net. It was unlike any goal I’ve ever witnessed, including Bob Nystrom’s overtime goal that won the New York Islanders their first ever Stanley Cup. It truly went beyond hockey. It was a notice to a community. It was a temporary escape from a dark reality.

There is an organization located not far from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that is near and dear to me and my family. They have helped Robin and I tremendously in dealing with our grief. The Bobby Resciniti Healing Hearts Foundation is an organization that helps families that have lost children. I don’t know where my family would be without them in dealing with Justin’s loss. The tragedy in Parkland has left 17 families in the same position. Resciniti and his staff have already gotten the ball rolling in welcoming those directly affected by the shooting on February 14th. To me, grief counselling is an essential part of the healing process, and the Healing Hearts staff are the best there is.

I dedicate this article to many people. I know this has been a long blog but please bear with me. First off I dedicate this to all 17 victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I further dedicate this to my son Justin Karpel who passed away exactly one year prior to the shooting. I also dedicate this to the following angels who are with the victims as well as my son, they are Stevie, Matthew, Paul, Nikayla, Christina, and Domenic.

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