SUNRISE, Fla. – When Shawn Thornton was hired as an executive by the Florida Panthers just months after announcing his retirement from the NHL, there was one thing he knew he wanted to do.
It was just going to take some time.
Thornton went from hockey player to upper management in very short order, becoming the Panthers Vice President of Business Operations in July of 2017.
The then-39-year-old enjoyed a fruitful 14-year NHL career, playing in over 700 games for four different franchises. He was a part of two Stanley Cup winning teams, in Anaheim and Boston, and became known for his hard-working attitude and always being an exemplary teammate.
And also, you know, for fighting.
It was during his time with the Bruins, where Thornton spent the majority of this career, that the seeds would be planted for what would eventually become Florida's new and highly popular behind the scenes series, Panthers Uncaged.
Back in 2013, during Thornton's sixth season wearing a Bruins sweater, he was asked to be a part of the pilot episode for a television show called Behind the B. It was intended to allow fans a non-traditional look at their favorite players and coaches during times where the cameras were normally not rolling.
"They literally showed up at my house and watched me go to the coffee shop and followed me through the day, then they mic'ed me up for practice," Thornton recalled. "I was very aware of how it was going to work if we decided to do one ourselves."
The episode never aired, but the experience left a lasting impression on Thornton.
Bruins Vice President of Communications Matt Chumra is one of Thornton's best friends. When Behind the B was in its infancy, it was Chumra and former Bruins Director of Communications and Content Eric Tosi (who now works in that role for the Vegas Golden Knights) that ran point on the show.
Behind the B is now in its seventh season and is immensely popular across New England. It's a huge, award-winning hit, and the idea of putting together a production like that is something that never left Thornton's mind.
"As a player, I'd be out golfing with (Chumra) in the summer and end up talking to him about the show," Thornton explained. "When I started on the business side, one of the first things we did, I had a group phone call with the two or three people I work with and with (Chumra), and we just walked through what the process was, what it looked like, how many people were needed, how many minutes the show was, all the little intricate details."
Thornton took all that information and filed it away, knowing that eventually, when the time was right, he would revisit the idea.
Fast forward to the summer of 2020.
With the NHL and NHLPA finalizing the league's Return to Play Plan, the lightbulb above Thornton's head flicked on.
The Panthers were set to play in a postseason series and fans couldn't have been more starved for live sports. If ever there was an opportunity to get a massive amount of eyeballs on a show about the Florida Panthers, the table couldn't have been more set.
"We've done a lot of research over the last couple years on how to put one of these shows together," Thornton said. "We decided with the amount of curiosity around what sports coming back during this pandemic would look like, we thought it was the perfect time to attack and put something together. We floated the idea up the chain to ownership to make sure we had buy-in from the top, and they said, 'Yes, absolutely, we love it.'"
With the big bosses on board, Thornton and his team got to work.
They approached the Panthers hockey operations department first and went through the entire concept. With the kind of access Thornton had in mind in order for the show to live up to his standard, there would have to be approval from hockey ops for there to be cameras filming what are normally private moments for players, coaches and staff.
“Hockey operations told us, ‘Whatever you guys need, we’re here to help. We think it’s a really cool story,’” Thornton said.
It was only a matter of days from the moment Thornton decided to move ahead with the show proposal to when it was given the green light.
It was then that the real work began.
The time had come to dust off those three-year-old notes and start working on the passion project that Thornton had wanted to pursue since the day Florida hired him.
"We moved very quickly on this," he said. "We went from getting approval to going into production in probably less than a week. We were very agile. I'm very lucky that I have a team that's willing to work a lot of hours."
One of the biggest concerns at the start was for safety. With the NHL in standby mode amid the global coronavirus pandemic, which at the time was spreading rapidly throughout parts of the United States, particularly South Florida, every precaution was taken in order to ensure that no safety or social distancing guidelines would be overlooked.
"We wanted to make sure, first and foremost, that everyone was safe, and the bubble was never compromised," Thornton said. "It wasn't an easy task, but we were very pleased with the measures we took."
Thornton's team went into the Panthers Ice Den in Coral Springs prior to Phase 3 of the NHL's Return to Play Plan and began installing cameras around the rink and inside the team's private training facilities.
"We did a lot of rigging with cameras and GoPros, figuring out different shots that we could get," he said. "Everything was sanitized that we installed, which was before the arena was also sanitized. Anybody that's inside the bubble is tested and follows the same protocol as the players."
Speaking of the players, there was nothing but excitement and enthusiasm when the concept was brought to the Panthers locker room.
The opportunity to be a part of something like Panthers Uncaged, especially while traveling the uncharted waters of resuming a hockey season during an ongoing health crisis, was warmly received by Florida's players and coaching staff.
"This is a way for fans to get a little bit of a look inside the way things go every day," said defenseman Mike Matheson. "I know that even today, when I see those types of shows that other teams do, I find them a lot of fun to watch."
Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville, like Thornton, is no stranger to being part of the behind the scenes, all-access situations.
Between the multiple Stanley Cup video productions from his championship days with the Chicago Blackhawks to the team’s extensive YouTube channel, there is no shortage of candid, quick-witted Q clips from his tenure in the Windy City.
"It's always fun to see what it's really like inside the locker room or the coaches' office," Quenneville said. "You're getting a flavor from different looks in different ways, and from a fans perspective, I'm sure it's interesting.
"From our point of view, we're just going about our business as we always do."
The frontrunners on putting each episode of Panthers Uncaged together are Dennis Docil, Director of Video Production for the team, and Ian Ferrel, Florida's Motion Graphic Designer, but they are certainly not the only ones whose blood, sweat and tears go into each chapter and verse.
A total of six departments and around 20 people work together diligently to construct every new frame of Panthers Uncaged.
"We had a general idea of where we wanted to be, how we wanted the art to look, what we wanted in each episode and how we were going to shape it," Thornton explained.
Florida Panthers website reporter Jameson Olive pens each script and Docil puts the show together visibly on storyboards.
Much of the filming is done by Panthers Videography Specialist Dave Courtney. Odds are you've already admired Courtney's work without realizing it, as he's usually behind the camera when players are being filmed during practices, games and in the locker room.
With all the footage captured and verses composed, the Marketing and Creative department jumps in to help with the graphics. This is where Ferrel’s expertise is put to work, with the motion graphics and overall look of Uncaged coming together under his watchful eye.
"A lot of moving parts but a lot of smart, hardworking, willing people behind it to put it together," Thornton said.
One of the final pieces of the puzzle, and one of the most important aspects of the show, was something that viewers would never see.
Finding the right voice that fit with the tone and theme of Panthers Uncaged was imperative, but equally challenging, considering the fast track the show was traveling from conception to creation.
A list of candidates was compiled by Docil, who instructed each on what to say and then reviewed each recording with Thornton and the rest of the team.
"It was like a virtual audition, it was amazing," said Thornton. "We went from 12 down to two and asked for a follow up from the finalists.
"Our guy was the unanimous decision after that."
That guy's name is DL Dana, a veteran voice artist that you've probably heard on commercials before, whether it be for Papa John's pizza, the NFL, NBA or the Nike Jordan brand.
"We thought he turned out amazing," Thornton said. "We're really happy with the way we went."
The final episode of Panthers Uncaged will be released on Wednesday. It will feature the team's trip to the Toronto safety bubble for the Eastern Conference Qualifying Round against the New York Islanders.
Whether or not a second season of the streaming success will show up on our screens is something still to be determined.
For the time being, the cameras will continue rolling as the foundation has been laid for a consistent glimpse into a world that, until now, Panthers fans had seen very little of.
“We’re behind the curtain,” Thornton said. “We’re getting to see everything from them spitting into a vial for coronavirus testing to training in the gym to practicing and hanging out in the Toronto bubble, and it will continue to evolve.”
The first five episodes of Panthers Uncaged can be found by clicking on the links below: