By Sam Carchidi

Photo Credit: Al Bello / Allsport.

John Vanbiesbrouck hasn’t played since the 2001-02 NHL season, but the former Florida Panthers star goalie is still close to hockey. Very close.

Now 58, Vanbiesbrouck is on USA Hockey’s management team, helping to select the country’s players for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. Team USA is scheduled to begin Olympic play Feb. 10 against host China.

Back was he was playing professionally in South Florida, Vanbiesbrouck was the Little Goalie Who Could. Remarkably, the Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Final in just their third year of existence.

Vanbiesbrouck, owner of 2.25 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in the 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs, was a driving force on that team. Ditto right winger Scott Mellanby, who led the Panthers in goals (32) and points (70) that season.

“It was an extremely special year,” Vanbiesbrouck said recently. “I think people understand now how special it was.”

Florida has never returned to the Stanley Cup Final, though this season’s team looks like a strong contender.

In 2018, Vegas got to the Final even quicker than Florida. The Golden Knights reached the Final in their inaugural season (2017-18), losing to Washington in five games.

“But I think the difference is that we had more communication and access to the fans when we played,” said Vanbiesbrouck, comparing the Panthers’ run to Vegas’. When Florida got to the Final, “it was all pre-9/11, so there was a lot more fluidity and fans could get near players, and we had a lot of special events. I say that because of the Rat Festival we had that year, which turned out to be a great story. That was just one of MANY great stories that year.”

For the Panthers, it was known as The Year of the Rat. Before their home opener that season, Mellanby apparently killed a rat in the Miami Arena dressing room with his stick, then scored two goals (supposedly with rat fur on his stick) in a 4-3 win over the Flames that night. Vanbiesbrouck called it a “rat trick.”

It was the start of a craze. After that game, Panthers fans began throwing plastic and rubber rats on the ice when their team scored a goal.

Photo Credit: Glenn Cratty / ALLSPORT / NHL Images

“We had the good fortune of the players coming together that year, but mostly, we had a great connection with the fans of South Florida,” Vanbiesbrouck said.  “I think it’s lasted the test of time. I think people point to that team” as being very special. “It’s not like they haven’t had some success, but they haven’t gotten back to the Finals.”

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Fast-forward 25 (going on 26) years from that unforgettable season, and Vanbiesbrouck is extremely proud of his association with Team USA. 

Besides Vanbiesbrouck, the U.S. Olympic Team’s leadership group includes Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin and Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. The first three players the group picked for the Olympics: Patrick Kane and Seth Jones of the Blackhawks, and the Toronto Maple Leafs’  Auston Mathews. The final team, which is expected to be finalized in early January, will have 25 players.

“It’s an honor to be a part of this,” said Vanbiesbrouck, who will be with the team in China. “And it’s great to work with these people on the highest level and to represent our country on the biggest stage. … And in living through this time of great uncertainty (because of the pandemic), it’s certainly going to be a shot in the arm to our country to put together a great group of players and give it our best shot.”

Vanbiesbrouck, assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey, is responsible for “everything international for the United State,” so he is also deeply involved with the women’s and Paraolympic sled teams that will compete in Beijing. The women’s team is the defending gold medalist.

Vanbiesbrouck said he is in charge of “choosing people to select those teams.” 

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Known as “Beezer” during his playing days, Vanbiesbrouck helped the Panthers establish themselves with his strong goaltending. When Florida officially joined the league to the start of the 1993-94 season, it selected Vanbiesbrouck from the New York Rangers with the first pick in the expansion draft.

Smart move.  Vanbiesbrouck brought instant credibility to the new franchise. Florida’s first team didn’t have stars, except for the guy wearing the mask in the nets.

Led by the 5-foot-8, 176-pound Vanbiesbrouck, the Panthers quickly became one of the most successful NHL expansion teams ever. No wonder he went into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.

“He wasn’t big, but he was tough to score on and he was consistent; he played the angles really well,” said former left winger Brian Propp, one of the highest scorers in the Philadelphia Flyers’ history. “He moved pretty fast and he thought the game pretty well. And he’s a good guy. Everybody loved him.”  

The Detroit native spent 20 seasons in the NHL and recorded 374 wins, the second-most ever for an American-born netminder, behind Ryan Miller’s 391 victories. Along the way, he won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender in 1986, and was a runner-up for the award in 1994.

Vanbiesbrouck played for the Rangers, Panthers, Flyers, Islanders and Devils during a 20-year career that ended in 2001-02,  

The 1995-96 season didn’t end with a title, but it was still magical.

 “We didn’t win the Stanley Cup, but we won the fans over,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “That’s what it’s all about. We had a great vibe on the team. We were on a mission, and every game mattered.”

The Panthers went 41-31-10 in the regular season, then got past Boston (four games to one), Philadelphia (four games to two), and Pittsburgh (four games to three) before being swept by Colorado in the Final.

Before the season, they had been a 6,000-to-1 longshot to win the Cup.

“That team had its ups and downs,” said Vanbiesbrouck, who has four grown sons (Ian, Ben, Nick, and Daniel ) who all play in adult hockey leagues.  “We had a real fiery coach in Doug MacLean, who was great, and we had Lindy Ruff as an assistant and Dwayne Sutter, and we had some great trainers. The thing is, I remember everything about that team. There’s nothing that you want to forget. So as I’m saying these names, I get emotional just talking about the special people that were involved — our owner, our management team. We just had a special group. Great coaches, great players. It’s not that we were super-efficient, superstars on the ice, but they were great teammates and a group you’ll never forget.”

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During Vanbiesbrouck’s first season in Florida (1993-94), his former team, the Rangers, won their first Cup since 1940. Vanbeisbrouck had been a Rangers mainstay for nearly a decade before going to Florida.

Seeing the Rangers win the Cup, he said, was “bittersweet” because he never had a chance to hoist the Cup as a player, “but on the same hand, no one could experience what a (young) expansion team did in Florida. We turned a light on in a market that some people thought shouldn’t exist.”

Vanbiesbrouck said he was “extremely happy” for the 1994 Rangers because “the 1940 chants were going to be over. You’d hear those chants in every arena we’d go.”

He was referring to opposing fans mocking the Rangers’ long drought. ”Most of all, I was so happy for the fans who had waited such a long time,” he said. 

Now, the Little Man Who Could is dreaming of hearing other chants because the Olympics are around the corner: “USA….USA…..USA.”