Panthers open long-awaited new practice facility at Fort Lauderdale's War Memorial
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Aaron Ekblad drove to work on Friday morning in a golf cart. Some of his Florida Panthers teammates did the same. And Panthers coach Paul Maurice skipped vehicles entirely, walking to the office before sunrise instead.
These long-awaited perks for the Panthers are now reality.
The Panthers got onto the ice at their new-to-them facility for the first time Friday, practicing at the War Memorial in downtown Fort Lauderdale more than 2 1/2 years after the team started remodeling what is now a 73-year-old building.
Many Panthers players and coaches live in that part of Fort Lauderdale, near the ocean. The commute to work, for some, has been more than 30 minutes — sometimes much more the 30 minutes — each way. Not anymore; Maurice's walk was about 8 minutes and Ekblad's drive lasted about 5 minutes Friday.
“And I took the long way,” Ekblad said.
It was shortly before noon Friday when Maurice skated onto what was a pristine piece of center ice over the Panthers’ red and blue logo. By 12:10 p.m., that patch of ice was appropriately scraped up — after skate blades dug into it for the first time.
It was a wonderful problem for the Panthers to finally have. The ice got rave reviews, too.
“We’ve been working on this for a number of years now,” Panthers president and CEO Matthew Caldwell said. “A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into making this first class. And to have our first practice today, I just saw the players and they were overwhelmed. We're just blown away.”
The formal name of the new facility: The Baptist Health IcePlex at FTL War Memorial. The building itself dates back to 1950 and the Panthers unveiled plans to remodel it and turn it into their practice home — replete with two sheets of ice, a restaurant, 1,000 seats for fans to watch practices, retail space and an outdoor concert venue — go back to a groundbreaking in May 2021.
The plan then was to spend $65 million. The final number was significantly higher. And it's not done yet; workers were literally tending to landscaping outside and countless projects inside on Friday, but the team portion such as the first rink, locker room, video room and coaches' space is complete. A formal grand opening is set for early 2024.
“You want to play and you want to win. That has to be priority one,” Maurice said. “And then you want an opportunity to enjoy life, and boy, we've got it. This setup is going to be as good as there is in the league. And when you've got some lifestyle pieces to it as well, this is an exciting day for us. It really is.”
Caldwell is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, as is Panthers owner Vincent Viola. They were approached by Fort Lauderdale city officials to gauge interest in updating the War Memorial, and quickly decided to go forward.
“To be able to honor veterans ... we feel right at home,” Caldwell said.
The War Memorial is about a 25-minute drive from Amerant Bank Arena, where the Panthers play home games, with the team's former practice home a bit further to the northwest. But many players live much closer to the War Memorial site — as evidenced by some of them driving golf carts to work. There are outdoor training spaces, a terrace with barbecues for players to grill, lounge areas to relax or watch games and 24-hour access for players to work out or get treatment.
“There's so much functionality,” Panthers general manager Bill Zito said. “But I think the most important part is that it's home.”
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