Cats' conversion on ice unleashes rat fever

Ice in Florida? Well, there's the the crushed stuff they serve in the local "rum runner" cocktail of Bacardi and fruit punch. But the closest Florida gets to snow is the annual winter influx of "snowbirds" - ageing, rheumatic New Yorkers who like the idea of a swim or a round of golf in February.

So why is the Sunshine State going through a serious bout of ice mania? Because the Florida Panthers, an ice-hockey side only three years old, is in the Stanley Cup finals, that's why. To the uninitiated, that's the ice hockey equivalent of football's World Cup. And it's long been dominated by teams from Canada or the chilly northern United States.

Actually, it's not so much ice-hockey mania, since few Floridians had the foggiest idea what the sport was all about until recently. It's more a case of what the locals call "rat fever". Or maybe just a perfect excuse to feel good and party.

The Panthers, founded in sun-scorched Miami in 1993 to the smirks of the rest of the ice hockey-playing world, began with the obvious logo - a panther, printed on their jerseys and their goaltender's helmet. They were known as "the Cats".

The team was widely seen as a bunch of cast-offs, poorly paid and known in the sport as "muckers" rather than "finesse" players. That is, until a funny thing happened to one of them in the Miami Arena dressing room last October before the first home game of this season.

Right-winger Scott Mellanby found a rat in his locker room and whacked it stone-dead with his stick. He went on to whack in two goals in the game, billed by his teammates as a "rat-trick". The Cats immediately got a new nickname - the Rats - and went from strength to strength.

When they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins to reach the Stanley Cup finals, some critics suggested it may not have been down so much to their skill as the psychological impact of hundreds of rats tossed onto the ice by Florida fans during breaks in play. The black rats were plastic but it must have been unnerving for the Penguins. Pittsburgh goaltender Tom Barasso took cover under his net.

Floridians who had long switched between the Dolphins American football team in winter and the Marlins baseball side in summer were consumed by "rat fever". Pizza Hut had to hire three times as many delivery drivers during Panthers' games. The Publix supermarket chain sold out of rat-shaped cakes as fast as they could bake them.

The Dan Marino's bar, named after its Dolphins' football player owner, was inundated with demand for its new drink, the Ratshooter (Jaegermeister schnapps with peppermint).

As surprised as anyone else by the Panthers' success, the Miami Herald newspaper decided on the opening day of the Stanley Cup finals this week to explain what ice hockey was all about. "The primary objective of the game is to score goals while preventing your opponent from doing the same," it explained in a special pull-out guide.

The Panthers' owner, Wayne Huizenga, showed up at matches with a real- looking white rat on the lapel of his blazer. He calls his wife Marti, who wears a gold necklace with the word RATS in large letters, "the Rat Lady". With temperatures of more than 27C and high humidity outside, Mr Huizenga's main problem is keeping the ice from melting in the Arena.

When the team qualified for the Stanley Cup finals, Florida shops and bars ran out of the black plastic rats that had been making them a fortune. Orders went out throughout the United States and were shipped in to allow fans to toss them at giant television screens in packed bars.

For the first two Stanley Cup final games this week the "Rats" were away to the Colorado Avalanche in Denver and may have met their match. Not only did they lose the first two games - crushed by 8-1 in the second - but the Denver fans tossed rat-traps on to the ice in defiance.

But the Floridians are still hoping against hope that this could be the Year of the Rat.