Fehr willing to give Panthers ‘a reasonable opportunity’ to redevelop market

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Despite being in the thick of the playoff race, the Florida Panthers managed to draw just 10,198 fans to BB&T Center for last night’s game versus the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It was a disappointing crowd, especially considering many of the attendees were dressed in the blue and white of the visiting team. But it was also status quo for this season in Sunrise, where the Panthers, under new ownership, have stopped giving away free tickets and, as a result, sit dead last in NHL attendance, averaging just 10,776 fans.

NHLPA chief Donald Fehr has seen the crowds. However, he’s not yet willing to say whether the NHL should remain long-term in South Florida.

“I look at plans to redevelop a market the same way I do with a trade,” Fehr told Sportsnet’s Hockey Central (video).

“Everybody does the immediate prognostications as to what it’s going to mean and who got the better of the deal. And one, or two, or five years later, they say, ‘Oh wait a minute, we didn’t anticipate this.’

“So, you have to give it some time.”

While Fehr concedes that hockey has been a tough sell in “a number” of American markets, he believes it’s imperative to experiment and “see if there’s some approach, some formula, some mechanism, some outreach to fans which will change the dynamic, get them into the arenas — because that’s the trick, is to get them into the arenas, and not just the snowbirds that are flying down from Quebec and Ontario.”

And Fehr is “certainly willing to give the Florida management a reasonable opportunity to do that.”

If you’re wondering, the Panthers’ best crowd of the season (19,614, a sellout) was Dec. 30, when the Montreal Canadiens came to town…along with thousands of their fans.