Michael Russo’s Sunday Insider: At last, rays of sunshine in Florida

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 1, 2012 - 12:51 AM

The reward of a playoff spot is near for Stephen Weiss, who has endured years of sometimes laughable lows with the Panthers.

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Stephen Weiss can’t wait to be a part of the Florida Panthers’ first postseason berth since 2000.

Photo: Chris O'meara, Associated Press

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Wild fans should know the name Stephen Weiss because for years both the previous regime and the new have tried to unleash him from the Florida Panthers' grasp.

Over the past several years, scores and scores of players have escaped hockey's black hole -- South Florida.

But Weiss has always remained, loyal beyond belief to what was an unstable franchise that hasn't made the postseason since 2000. When Dale Tallon took over as general manager two Mays ago after building the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup winner, he sat down with Weiss and gave him every opportunity to say, "Trade me."

Weiss' response as player after player asked out?

"I said, 'I want to be here. I believe in you and what you did in Chicago and I want to see this team turn around,' " Weiss said before Florida played the Wild on Thursday.

Since the Panthers last made the playoffs, they've had eight coaches and seven GMs. Dozens of players have come and gone since Weiss was selected fourth overall in the 2001 draft.

But Weiss remained committed and is finally seeing it pay off. He has played 633 games without a playoff appearance, but the Panthers are on the verge of their first playoff berth in 12 years.

"I've come full circle," said Weiss, who turns 29 Tuesday. "I've been through all the trials and tribulations. The turnover, a lot of players have been in and out, a lot of coaches, assistant coaches, GM's in and out. It has been tough. There's never really been a familiarity with anything here.

"You meet new, good friends and all of a sudden they're gone. And it hasn't been one or two guys. We're shipping out six or seven guys a deadline.

"So to be here through all of that, it's hard not to think about the moment of my first playoff game. I try not to. I try to focus on one game at a time, you know, that old cliché. But it'll be a nice moment for sure to finally get in and look back at all the stuff that's gone on and that I've been the one to stick it out.

"It'll be worth it."

Weiss has played more games in a Panthers uniform than anybody in history, and he's their second-leading scorer. He's lived through extraordinary moments, such as when he got a front-row seat to the power struggle between Mike Keenan, when he was coach, and Rick Dudley, when he was GM, during his first full season.

On the night of Oct. 15, 2002, the Panthers lost to the Wild, 4-1.

"I think I had an assist and Keenan came and sat with me on the plane from Minnesota to Chicago. He said, 'If you're not our best player in Chicago, I'm sending you back to junior.' I said, 'Absolutely,' " Weiss said. "I came in the next morning for practice and before I even got in the dressing room he pulled me aside and said, 'You're going back.'

"Then I get a call from Mr. Dudley and he goes, 'Don't go anywhere.' I said, 'Oh, God, here we go.' "

Dudley sped in a rental car from St. Louis to Chicago to save the day.

"I came in for the morning skate on game day and all the boys were in the locker room laughing. It was an interesting 24 hours, for sure," Weiss said.

Yeah, Welcome to Florida! Weiss ended up staying and has never left.

He has dealt with painful years but is now witnessing the vision of Tallon and assistant GM Mike Santos paying off. He's excited for the fans who have stuck by the Panthers even when the franchise didn't give them reasons to do so.

"There's a core group there that are awesome," Weiss said. "They're there every night and they want it really bad. It'll be great for them to see some playoff hockey because they deserve it. I'm excited about the position we're in, but we're not throwing any parties yet."

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