How a Failed Trip to Edmonton Created a Bond Between a Panthers Fan and Writer During the Stanley Cup Final

How a Failed Trip to Edmonton Created a Bond Between a Panthers Fan and Writer During the Stanley Cup Final
How a Failed Trip to Edmonton Created a Bond Between a Panthers Fan and Writer During the Stanley Cup Final

The story, as it unfolded, was difficult to process.

Two strangers in their late 20s, connected by the Florida Panthers and travel plans gone awry, somehow found themselves in a last-ditch effort to salvage their trip from South Florida to Western Canada for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals and possibly watch hockey history unfold. A 10-hour travel day turned into 22 hours—including four hours in Ubers and adding two more airports to our itinerary.

We can laugh about it now. It’s been over a week since it all happened. And the Florida Panthers did eventually win that elusive first Stanley Cup, although not on that trip, so that made the trip and the aftermath all the more memorable.

But in retrospect, they had no idea how this journey would connect two complete strangers.

How it started

The conversation started innocently enough.

While waiting for my delayed flight from Fort Lauderdale to Toronto – the first leg of my journey to Edmonton for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals – I spotted a Panthers fan named Jake Levine, wearing a Gustav Forsling jersey, chatting with a few other travelers in Panthers gear.

Several circumstances have led us to this moment: Levine and his family are season ticket holders, and I am finishing up my first full season covering the team for the Miami Herald. But we were both on our way to hopefully making history.

The Panthers, who led the best-of-7 series 3-2, needed just one more win against the Edmonton Oilers to lift the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.

About an hour into our three-hour flight, Levine and I both received the notification: our connecting flight to Edmonton had been cancelled.

We were both rebooked on a new flight from Toronto to Edmonton – a flight that wouldn’t reach us until 12:30 PM on Saturday, long after Game 6 would have ended.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

The problem: There were almost no flights available to get into Edmonton before the game.

We were seated a row apart. Our eyes immediately locked.

The first round of emotions began. Panic. Dismissal. A little bit of anger.

And then, about an hour and a half into the flight, as we (along with friends and family on the ground and some helpful passengers on our flight) were looking for flight options that might salvage the trip, Levine caught my attention.

He found something.

An hour-long Uber ride in the middle of the night from Toronto Airport to Region of Waterloo International Airport.

A 6.15am flight from Waterloo to Calgary.

A three-hour Uber from Calgary to Edmonton.

The plan was unorthodox—crazy, even—but it was better than nothing. We were already so far into the trek. Why turn back? Why miss what could have been?

Let me preface all this with a warning: I probably have the worst luck when it comes to traveling for work. The joke I made about the Marlins for five seasons — a self-deprecating coping mechanism, really — was that at least one of my flights was delayed on every trip. Often, that came true.

A few examples:

In 2019, my flight in New York was canceled, I had to stay an extra night (never a bad thing), and then had to take four flights (with the last connection in Tampa!) to return to Fort Lauderdale.

After the first road trip of the 2023 season, my flight from Philadelphia to Fort Lauderdale was canceled (granted, Fort Lauderdale’s airport was practically flooded), so I flew from Philly to New Orleans to Miami and then took the Tri-Rail to Fort Lauderdale to get my car out of the airport garage.

I missed Game 3 of the Cup Finals – the only Panthers game I didn’t cover in person during the playoffs – due to bad weather in South Florida.

I wonder what I did in a past life to have this kind of bad karma with the travel gods.

However, this trip is now the leader in the clubhouse.

But every time there’s a disruption in my travel schedule, it brings me back to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s cliché: “It’s not the destination that counts; it’s the journey.”

The last trip was definitely one for the memories.

Miami Herald sportswriter as he boarded his flight to Toronto (left), while waiting at Region of Waterloo International Airport for his impromptu flight to Calgary (center), and after landing in Calgary and getting a much-needed cup of coffee (right).

How it went

We landed in Toronto around 11pm, cleared customs and were able to spend another two hours recovering before heading to Waterloo.

The airport is small, with only six gates in the terminal. We arrived at 2:15am and had two hours before security opened and four hours until our flight. I wrote a Matthew Tkachuk story. He tried to get some sleep.

We chatted a bit here and there in Waterloo, discussing a bit of what the Panthers needed to do to close out the series (essentially: start strong, get Sergei Bobrovsky back in shape, get the stars — particularly the top line of Carter Verhaeghe, Aleksander Barkov and Sam Reinhart — to step up a gear), but otherwise it was mostly quiet as the adrenaline from the night before kicked in.

And then we boarded the WestJet flight to Calgary, and the juices started flowing again. A little over four hours in the air without incident.

With another section completed, optimism rose. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, running on fumes (plus a kick of coffee from Tim Hortons for me) after we should have been in Edmonton hours and hours earlier, but we couldn’t help but realize that we were finally almost there .

We arrived in Edmonton around noon local time after a three hour Uber from Calgary.

Levine barely spoke during the ride. I wrote half of this story on my phone during the hike. We went our separate ways when we were dropped off at our hotels.

Jordan McPherson and Jake Levine from their seats before Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at Rogers Place in Edmonton — McPherson in the press box, Levine in the lower bowl.

When we both arrived at Rogers Place for the game — he sat by the glass, I in the press box — the optimism that we had finally completed our journey carried over to the arena.

The Panthers make this happen.

And then the puck dropped.

And Florida got crushed 5-1.

And so we headed back to Sunrise, not to party, but for a winner-take-all seventh match that would have seemed unimaginable just a few days earlier.

“We went through hell for this…” Levine texted afterward.

Barely 17 hours after arriving in Edmonton, I was already on my way back to South Florida for a wonderful 12-hour travel day: from Edmonton to Vancouver, to Atlanta and to Fort Lauderdale.

(Folks, if you haven’t figured it out yet: don’t try to travel from Florida to Edmonton; it’s not fun.)

After a day of sleep, it was back to the Amerant Bank Arena on Monday for Game 7. Optimism turned to nerves. A series that the Panthers had completely controlled seemed to have slipped away. The final blow felt inevitable.

We sit in our places. He on chairs by the glass. I in the press box.

After one period the score was tied. Things were still tense. Florida led 2-1 after the second period after a goal by Sam Reinhart.

“Okay,” I said to myself. “This could happen.”

And then the Panthers stuck to their signature brand of lockdown defense in the third to hold off the Oilers.

The Panthers win 2-1.

The Panthers are Stanley Cup champions.

As soon as I get back to the press box, I’ll text Levine.

“She. Did. It.”

“We did it,” Levine replies.

Miami Herald sportscaster Jordan McPherson takes a selfie on the ice at Amerant Bank Arena after the Florida Panthers win the Stanley Cup, while Jake Levine celebrates with the team in the Elbo Room the next day.

How are you

Since the end of the game on Monday, Levine and I have been living the Stanley Cup Championship experience in our own way.

I’m done documenting the trip. He’s been partying almost as non-stop as the team, even meeting them at the Elbo Room in Fort Lauderdale. He calls the past week “a dream.”

Considering the nightmare we’ve been through, the dream is definitely worth it.

The waves of emotions — from depression to hope to numbness to jubilation (for him) and relief (for me) — are something neither of us will forget. It’s a story we can tell again and again. It will never get old.

Can the next trip please be a little less hectic?