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It’s easy to look at the acres of empty seats in Florida and say no one cares about the Panthers. That’s not true, of course. The Panthers are celebrating their 20th anniversary this season, so they’ve obviously created fans along the way.

Brian Skrudland, in particular, holds a special place in his heart for the organization. He was the Panthers’ first captain in 1993-94 and helped lead them to the Stanley Cup finals two years later. He was the director of player development for the last three seasons before being named assistant coach during a November shakeup.

Skrudland has watched the highs and lows of hockey in South Florida from the inside and out. He admits he’s been plenty worried about the team’s plight through the years.

“Yes, as a matter of fact I was,” Skrudland said before facing Buffalo last week. “There were a lot of really thin years. You watch and they scan the arena and you see the seats empty.

“Fans pay these players to play. If there’s no fans in the seats, usually that’s not a very good sign.”

The Panthers’ arena is among the NHL’s emptiest, especially early in the season before the snowbirds arrive. Florida ranks 25th in attendance with an average of 14,603 fans per game, according to ESPN. That’s 85.7 percent capacity in terms of ticket sales, a number the team can only dream of once no-shows are factored in.

It begs the question: Will the Panthers be around for another 20 years?

A new owner with grand plans has increased the odds. New York investment mogul Vincent Viola bought the club and the managing rights to its arena in September. He’s been busy this month, asking Broward County to redo his lease and telling General Manager Dale Tallon he has the green light to spend to the salary cap.

“The owner’s been really good,” Florida defenseman Brian Campbell said. “We had a nice team dinner with him and some of his friends and co-workers one night in Brooklyn when we were playing Jersey. They’re around all the time, and they want to win.

“With his background being a West Point grad, I feel you can trust a guy like that. He says he wants to do some things. He says he wants to spend money and make the team better. He’s talking about other projects, and it’s good to hear.”

Viola, who is a graduate of New York Law School in addition to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, envisions the arena and its surrounding area as a tourist destination. The Panthers have petitioned the state to allow gambling in the county, which would allow them to build a resort casino in the parking lot.

They’ve also asked the county for a new lease, which they consider vital. The Panthers told legislators they are losing $20 million to $30 million per year. The sides will meet again next month.

“Vinny Viola for me is a throwback to Wayne Huizenga,” Skrudland said, referring to the original owner, “how much he cares about the organization and how much he’s here. He really wants to be a part of this. He wants to let everybody do their jobs, and at the same time he wants to provide us with whatever he can.”

There’s only one surefire way to fill the seats, though. The Panthers have to win. They’ve made the playoffs just once in the past 12 seasons.

That hurts, especially in that market. The Miami Heat are one of the NBA’s premier clubs with LeBron James, but they were in the bottom third in attendance during the seasons between Shaquille O’Neal and King James. The Miami Dolphins ranked 29th in NFL attendance last season and played to just 76.3 percent capacity.

The Panthers sold out all four playoff games in 2012, showing that fans will come in from the sun to see a good product.

“The fan base still seems to be there from what we created back from ’93 to ’97,” Skrudland said. “When I got hired, I said ‘Hey, you guys will be amazed because if you can get to the playoffs I’m sure they’ll fill that joint,’ and they did. It was a lot of fun. Hockey was back in South Florida.

“We’re hoping that we get an opportunity again real soon to bring that feeling back because everybody loves to support a winner. We know that. It doesn’t matter what it is in life, we all love to follow a winner. That’s a major part of it. We’re excited about our opportunity here.”

Blues head to Yale

To say there’s a lot to do in New York City is an understatement. When teams have a day off in the Big Apple, they usually line up dinner reservations, event tickets or take in the sights.

The St. Louis Blues left and went to New Haven, Conn. There was no way Park Avenue Winter, Comic Strip Live or the Gapstow Bridge could stop that.

The Yale University women’s hockey team held its annual “White Out for Mandi” game Friday to honor Mandi Schwartz, a 2010 graduate who died of leukemia a year later. Her brother, Jaden, plays for the Blues. The organization joined him for the event and held a practice on campus.

“When Jaden asked us for permission to go himself, that was the first I’d really heard about it,” General Manager Doug Armstrong said. “Then finding out that we were in the proximity, it just seemed like something I thought the whole team should participate in. Jaden is part of our family, and it just seemed so logical for our team to go.

“We’re more thankful to them for allowing us to be part of it than for us going there.”

Mandi Schwartz played 73 straight games for Yale before being diagnosed. Her jersey remains in her locker stall.

“I didn’t know really what to expect, to be honest with you,” Jaden Schwartz said. “It’s pretty special seeing how many people showed up.”

On the fly

• The Coyotes have begun searching for a forward, though GM Don Maloney says options are slim because teams are waiting to see if they should be sellers or buyers. That could help the Sabres make big deals before the Olympic break since they know what they are.

• Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, who broke his right tibia Nov. 11, began light-contact practices Saturday. He believes he’ll be able to return to the Lightning soon and play for Canada in the Olympics.

• During Toronto’s six-game winning streak – which ended with a 7-1 thud against Lindy Ruff’s Stars – the Maple Leafs’ top line of Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak scored 12 of the team’s 23 goals. “Check the size of their paychecks,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “Aren’t they supposed to do that?”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com