SUNRISE, Fla. – Draped in the midst of another grueling season, the Florida Panthers, and the rest of the NHL, are moving closer to the league's annual holiday break.
Unlike the NFL or the NBA, which will schedule games on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day without batting an eye, the NHL provides its players a few days off to enjoy the holidays and take a much-needed break.
OK, the premise of the story has been set.
Panthers. Hockey. Holidays.
Now, I'll add the fun.
As the season has gone by, there have been a few entertaining narratives that I've been keeping track of.
It’s nothing as serious or weight bearing as, say, Joel Quenneville’e 900th NHL win, or the sudden, meteoric rise of Sergei Bobrovsky’s save percentage (from .884 on Dec. 6 to .903 just 13 days later).
No, nothing like that.
These are the amusing, down-to-earth stories that hockey fans have grown up loving because hockey players are a unique, consistent breed of athlete that is confident and happy to open up and chat about, well, pretty much anything.
It’s that kind of mindset and those kind of players that fill the Panthers dressing room.
Now, after that dramatically well-worded setup (if I do say so myself), let’s get started with the silliest of my Panthers holiday stories.
THE GIANT PUCK
Starting early in the season, something different caught my eye while watching the Panthers during a morning skate.
The usual routine of some hard skating, a few fast-paced drills and a team chat at center ice with Coach Q, was over.
Players were now free to work on whatever they felt like.
The defenseman gathered with assistant coach Mike Kitchen to work on shots from the blue line. Wingers headed to the opposite side of the ice for down-low drills with Andrew Brunette, who generally works with the forwards. Centers were in the neutral zone with former Panthers captain and current assistant coach Derek MacKenzie, practicing faceoffs.
But what was Keith Yandle doing over by the benches?
He's stickhandling with something, but what is it?
Oh, I see now.
It's a giant puck.
Aside from some childish enjoyment over what was literally just an oversized hockey puck, it didn’t seem like anything particularly special.
"I guess it's just a weighted, big puck," Yandle said.
But then he brought it out again.
Every time the puck showed up on the ice, that inner-child would start jumping up and down in excitement.
Finally, the inner-grown-up decided to appease the inner-child, so I approached Yandle for a very serious conversation about the King Kong of hockey pucks.
He explained that there was no rhyme or reason to why he started working with it, except for feelings similar to my own.
"I think it's funny," he said, before tilting his head back to recall how exactly the puck crossed his path.
"I think Mr. V (Panthers skill coach Paul Vincent) was using it with someone for wrist strength or something, and I saw it and said 'let's take this thing for a spin.'"
Needless to say, the giant puck has caught on.
Yandle's solo workouts with Puckzilla became passing drills across the neutral zone with a few players brave enough to mess with the thing.
"I think it's pretty cool," Panthers defenseman Josh Brown said. "I was watching him do it, so I just started playing with it."
Brown was the first player other than Yandle to give the puck the old college try.
He seems to have the usage down to a science.
"It's really heavy, so when you go to use a normal puck, it feels pretty light," Brown explained. "It helps with puck handling, bearing down on your stick, passing, and shooting the puck harder. I think that's kind of the point."
But is it helping?
"I hope it is, but I honestly have no idea," Brown said through a laugh. "It's just fun to mess around with."
It's amusing and entertaining, for sure, but if it's also serving a purpose during on-ice workouts, all the better.
Who knows? A new trend of working with the Incredible Hulk of hockey pucks could catch on, even with veteran players who are already well-set in their ways.
At the end of the day, it's still just a game they're playing.
“I’m pretty old school when it comes to training and all that stuff, but we’re all kids at heart,” Yandle said.
Observant fans have probably noticed the somewhat different way that Panthers players celebrate victories on the ice.
In lieu of the traditional high fives, fist bumps and yes, even light head butts, the Panthers like to channel their inner-Luke Skywalker while celebrating a win.
That's right, Panthers players enjoy some playful sword fighting on the ice every time they collect two points.
It's a custom that started sometime last season, and as is the case with most amusing things that happen around this team, Keith Yandle is not only involved, but at the heart of it.
"It seemed like every team was just giving high fives (after wins), so I wanted to switch it up and do a little sword-slash, or whatever you want to call it," Yandle explained. "It's just something different."
But let's dig a little deeper.
What led Yandle, a veteran of 14 NHL seasons who only watches Star Wars movies because his wife and kids are into them, to create such a random way for the team to revel in victory?
The 33-year-old defenseman recalls his days as a young Boston Red Sox fan, watching the different ways they would celebrate wins at Fenway Park.
"At one point, I think they were doing backhand high fives," he recalls, saying that he enjoyed seeing the team do something that was "just theirs."
Apparently, it's a concept that stuck with Yandle, because here we are, two decades later, talking about a bunch of swashbuckling Panthers.
"I remember the first day I did it, everyone went 'what the hell is this?'" Yandle recalled. "Then guys caught on, pretty quickly, actually."
It's something the players took to almost immediately, though nobody thought to question its origin.
"It's something we've been doing since I got here," Panthers winger Frank Vatrano said. "I don’t know where it came from, I never really asked."
I gesture towards Yandle.
"Ah. Yands. Who else?" he said with a laugh.
As far as keeping the celebrations fresh, Yandle said that doesn't necessarily mean having to come up with something new every season.
"It's always funny when a guy gets called up and doesn't know what it is," he laughed.
When asked who caught on to the swordplay first, Yandle couldn't really recall, though he did say that Noel Acciari seems to enjoy it the most.
"He does the whole motion. He puts his stick on his hip and pulls it out of the holster," Yandle explained, mimicking the gesture in an amusing, animated way. "He gets into it.
"It's just a fun thing for us. I'm glad it caught on, and guys seem to enjoy it."
HEY MR. DJ
Finding the right music for a locker room full of hockey players can be a tricky endeavor.
Earlier this season, we learned that Florida’s in-house DJ was Vincent Trocheck, and that he was responsible for choosing this year’s victory song, “So Good” by B.o.B.
As is the case with most things worth knowing, there was more to this than what lie on the surface.
It turns out that sometime over the past couple months, there was a shift in the musical leadership.
A new-school wave is taking over the Panthers locker room, and with that comes a new selector of songs.
Enter melody master Frank Vatrano.
"It feels good. It's nice to get the honor," Vatrano said of his new, all-important role. "I think we had to impeach Troch off the aux cord, so it was a good move for everyone."
Obviously, that begs the question of what was wrong with Trocheck's musical choices.
"He wasn't playing the right stuff at the right times," Vatrano said.
“Guys wanted some new-school stuff,” Trocheck explained. "It’s a tough job, you can’t please everyone.
“I have a wide array of everything, but I think now, with this team, everybody is more into rap. That’s Frankie’s style.”
Strangely enough, it seems that despite the locker room's fracture in music taste, both old-school Vinny and new-age Frankie agree that the current victory song is, for lack of a better term, meh.
"The win song is just whatever came up on the shuffle after a win. It's not great," Trocheck said with a laugh.
Overhearing the conversation, Mike Hoffman adds his two cents from a couple stalls down. "It's real bad."
Fortunately for Trocheck and Hoffman, the song doesn't seem to be set in stone.
Vatrano insisted any alterations to the playlist will be open to discussion, though he took a slightly more serious tone when asked about the process of selecting a new postgame victory tune.
“We’ll have a group decision on it,” he said matter-of-factly. “Troch ran a dictatorship. I don’t run dictatorships. I take everyone’s opinion into account, and then we’ll make a decision. (So that’s how you got the job?) Yeah.”
As we say in the news, this is a developing story.
Everyone have a safe and happy holiday!