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Florida Panthers -- Past and Present -- Going for the Gold

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The television ratings for these Winter Olympic games are pretty low here in South Florida (and when I say South Florida, I mean Dade and Broward Counties. They are pretty strong in Palm Beach).

I would think there are various obvious reasons for this. First, these are pretty much all sports that are foreign to those of us who grew up here.

The only moguls we know from are getting out of fancy cars on Ocean Drive.

Nordic combined is something at LA Fitness. And Skeletons pop up on the Miami River from time to time.

Half pipe? I'm not touching that one.

But Hockey is something a few of us are getting to know quite a bit.

Of these games, aside from Miami's own speed skater Jennifer Rodriguez, the hockey players are all about all we know.

Fans of the Florida Panthers will have plenty of old friends to cheer for once the men's hockey tournament starts Tuesday in Vancouver.

Current Panthers Tomas Vokoun (Czech Republic) and Dennis Seidenberg (Germany) are competing in these games, as are former Panthers Roberto Luongo (Canada) and Olli Jokinen (Finland) – both of whom make Broward County their offseason home.

“This is going to be a great event being that it's in Canada,'' said Vokoun.

Luongocana For Luongo, these Olympics are pretty special. He made his Team Canada debut in 2006 as a member of the Panthers. “That was very special to me,'' he says. “I got to go to Italy where my family is from.''

Now with the Vancouver Canucks, these Olympics will be much different for Luongo.

In these Olympics, he'll be playing in his home arena (GM Place) just a few blocks from his home.

Luongo will not be sleeping in his bed, however, as Team Canada has decided all will stay in the Olympic Village to further enhance their Olympic experience. And there will be plenty of pressure for Team Canada to keep the Gold at home.

“It's definitely exciting and I can't wait to be part of that experience,'' said Luongo. “There's always pressure in Canada to perform at your best and that's a good thing. It's your game and we have to perform under those circumstances. It's a big deal. They've been talking about what this team would look like for four years. But we're playing in front of our fans. We have to take advantage of it.''

Vokoun has carried a pretty heavy workload for the Panthers during the past few months as he has started 21 straight games. He'll be the starting goalie for the Czechs when they open late Wednesday night against Slovakia – so he's actually had a few days off to rest a little. Instead of playing every other night (or on consecutive nights) as he is accustomed to, Vokoun took Sunday to travel to Vancouver and will have practice days Monday and Tuesday before his first game.

Vokounolympics This is Vokoun's second trip to the Olympics as he helped the Czechs win Bronze in 2006. He says that medal is in a drawer somewhere. Even if he wins Gold, Vokoun may not put it on display. So he says now.

“We got a medal, and at the time we were disappointed it was only Bronze,'' he said. “Over the years, you get more appreciation for it. Not many people have an Olympic medal, whatever color it is. It's pretty cool. I can tell people I have a medal from the Olympics. You want to have something to show for it.''

Aside from Luongo and Jokinen, there are plenty other former Panthers competing in the games.

They are: Dan Boyle (Canada), Ville Peltonen (Finland), Jozef Stumpel (Slovakia), Ruslan Salei (Belarus), Viktor Kozlov (Russia), Karlis Skrastins (Latvia), Janis Sprukts (Latvia), Niklas Hagman (Finland) and Richard Zednik (Slovakia).

Beezerrats Panthers television voice Steve Goldstein will also be in Vancouver, teaming up with former Florida goalie John Vanbiesbrouck to call games on radio.

Pete DeBoer, coach of the Panthers, doesn't expect to be listening to the games in his car or while cleaning the garage. He's going to find a spot in front of the television and watch it all unfold.

“It'll be fun to sit back and watch, wishing you were there,'' DeBoer said. “I don't think people down here realize the hold hockey has on the country of Canada and how exciting that will be. It'll be neat.''

And will be he be rooting for his current and former players in the Games?

“Of course,'' he said, “until they play Canada.''

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