SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Vincent Viola has a problem. It’s a good problem.
Viola is one of the owners of Forte, the presumed favorite for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. He also owns the Florida Panthers, who just knocked off the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. And this weekend, with racing and hockey on his calendar, Viola might need to be in two places at once.
It beats the alternative. For the first time, the Panthers have reached the NHL’s second round in back-to-back years — getting there this year after stunning the Boston Bruins. The dark days for the franchise are gone, and Viola feels like the team is getting closer on making good on its promise to bring a Stanley Cup to South Florida.
“It’s everything that we anticipated around this process and on this journey,” Viola said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press. “We feel that we got through some pretty tough roller-coaster years. It means an awful lot. And it means an awful lot because I see the confidence reflected in the fan base. I truly feel that the fan base truly believes in a way, quite frankly, that was not warranted in the past.
“They gave us a lot of confidence and a lot of support on credit. They kind of surrendered it to us on credit, and it took us a while to earn it. Now I feel we have an organization that they can be proud of.”
It’s hard to win in anything, and hockey is no different. Last season’s Stanley Cup finalists — champion Colorado and runner-up Tampa Bay — both lost this season in Round 1. Florida, Carolina and Edmonton are the only teams so far to qualify for the second round both this year and last year; the New York Rangers can join that list if they beat New Jersey in Game 7 of their series.
The Panthers, for years, made winning seem impossible. Last year’s first-round series win over Washington was the franchise’s first playoff triumph since 1996. A second-round meeting with Toronto awaits Florida now; the winner will be going to the conference finals for the first time in a generation. Florida got there most recently in that 1996 run, Toronto in 2002.
“We have people believing in this team,” Viola said.
He’s among them, of course, his faith not even wavering even in the final moments of Game 7 on Sunday night. The Panthers sent the game to overtime on a goal by Brandon Montour, then sent the team with the best regular-season record in hockey history home for the summer on an overtime game-winner by Carter Verhaeghe.
“My exact emotions, 51% of me really had this inexplicable optimism — don’t ask me why — and 49% of me was thinking through all of the hard work, the staff and the players, and all of the dedication of the fans, and the feeling of ‘Man, we let the fans down again,'” Viola said. “I was not giving up. I’ll put it that way. I hadn’t given up as a fan.”
And the win further validated two big moves the Panthers made last summer.
One of those was trading Jonathan Huberdeau — then the franchise’s all-time scoring leader — to Calgary as part of a package that brought Matthew Tkachuk to Florida. Tkachuk had 109 points and 123 penalty minutes this season; the last person to have 100 in each of those categories was Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby in 2006.
The Panthers nearly balked at making the deal, simply because they thought so highly of Huberdeau. Viola called it “heartbreaking,” but added that the team’s ownership group — including his sons — and front office “had to think with our head, not our heart.”
“We were really blessed by good fortune when we brought on a true champion in Matthew Tkachuk,” Viola said. “A definitional player. You could call him a unicorn, you can call him a generational talent, call him what you want. He just is the quintessential modern hockey player leader. And his relationship with Aleksander Barkov, it’s like one and one makes four. That was good fortune.”
The other big change last summer was hiring coach Paul Maurice — another tough decision for Florida to make, especially after then-interim coach Andrew Brunette led the Panthers to the NHL’s best regular-season record a year ago.
“Paul Maurice was not given, let’s say, a long leash by the fans,” Viola said. “I think his job is worthy of consideration right up there with the best coaches in the league for the job he’s done.”
There’s a Kentucky Derby to chase with Forte. There’s a Stanley Cup to chase with the Panthers.
These are busy days for Viola, and he’s not complaining whatsoever.
“The Kentucky Derby’s a very difficult event to really predict because so many things have to go right,” Viola said. “But all things being equal, if he has a fair trip, he has a very fair shot at winning the race.”
His hockey team is surprising many. His horse, if it wins Saturday, will surprise very few. Either way, he’s enjoying the journey.
AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports