Members of The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz pose with the Stanley Cup before the Panthers' Game 7 victory. Credit: ‘The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz’

I’m the first person — well, second after Stephen A. Smith — to admit I don’t know anything about hockey.

While the only major professional sports franchise in my hometown is an NHL team, that team also happens to be the Columbus Blue Jackets, who as best as I can tell are the Cleveland Browns of hockey. I already have one Cleveland Browns in my life. I certainly don’t need another.

But as Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final took place on Monday night, I found myself more invested in the matchup than I have been for any hockey game since Team USA faced Iceland in the championship round of the Junior Goodwill Games. And as the final seconds ticked down with the Florida Panthers securing 2-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers and their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, I even felt a twinge of emotion thinking about the journey that the Panwagon had just taken me on.

I thought about Barky, Bob, Tkachuk and Ekblad.

Those aren’t names I have any business knowing, but if you forced to me to name 10 NHL players, nearly half of them would probably be Panthers (the rest would be Blue Jackets, Connor McDavid and Connor Bedard). As a longtime listener of The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, Florida Panthers talk has maintained an inexplicable presence in my life for at least five years. And while it may have started as a minor inconvenience I was willing to sit through to ensure I didn’t miss Stugotz’s Weekend Observations or Dan’s latest grief-eating interview, it turned into a legitimate connection to one of sports’ most exciting runs.

Expressing those thoughts on social media earlier in the series, I found I was far from alone. And while the Le Batard Show has always proudly wrapped itself in its South Florida pride, it’s often led to a mixed — at best — response from its national audience.

Just look at the way listeners couldn’t wait to drink Mike Ryan Ruiz’s tears after the Miami Hurricanes lost to Georgia Tech in heartbreaking fashion last fall. Or the way that Le Batard’s own pro-Heat approach has resulted in a running bit in which he serves as the franchise’s literal mouthpiece. Hell, I even first started listening to the show 13 years ago because I’m a long-suffering Cleveland fan who couldn’t wait to hear Dan eat crow after J.J. Barea outperformed LeBron James on basketball’s biggest stage.

(Dan proceeded to spend the entire first segment of the show breaking down the Dolphins’ offseason, a bit he paid homage to on social media on Monday night)

But while the show has often leaned into an antagonistic approach with its rooting interests, the same can’t be said for this Panthers team. Perhaps it’s because many listeners don’t have hockey teams of their own to root for or maybe the Ice Cats’ journey has just been that good of a story. But regardless of the reason, the connection built via the show has been genuine — although it hasn’tΒ always been perfect, or without hijinks.

As you might have heard, Le Batard Show regular and Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote made headlines in recent weeks by referring to McDavid — the consensus best hockey player on the planet — as “McOverrated.” And while it initially appeared that Cote would have the last laugh as Florida jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, the bit seemingly led to legitimate tension among the cast as Edmonton evened the series with three straight wins.

Entering Game 7 on Monday night, the stakes for Le Batard listeners were clear: Not only were the Panthers fighting to avoid a historic collapse while attempting to secure their first championship in franchise history, but Cote was fighting for his legacy as a columnist. It’s hard to imagine that “the Dolphins should trade Marino” wouldn’t be the worst take a sportswriter could be associated with. But calling McDavid “overrated” just before he spearheaded a legacy-securing comeback from an 0-3 series deficit would have been Cote’s new crowning achievement.

What’s more is not only did the Panthers win on Monday night, but so did Cote. Because of course he did.

Although McDavid was named the postseason MVP (which I now know is called “the Conn Smythe Trophy” thanks to the show), he was relatively quiet in Game 7. It’s not hard to envision a casual hockey fan tuning in and saying “what’s the big deal about this McDavid guy? Greg Cote was right!” as “McJesus” attempted just two shots and didn’t record a single point in the biggest game of his career. What that says about the state of sports commentary is a story for another day.

But while Cote was certainly on my mind on Monday night, I also thought about how the outcome of the third period would shape Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky’s own legacy — a conversation I would have known nothing about if it wasn’t for the Le Batard Show. I also thought about how excited the biggest Panthers fans on the show — Ruiz, Chris Cote and Roy Bellamy — must have been and the potential content that the ensuing parade outside the Sawgrass Mills outlet mall would inevitably produce.

I even ventured over to the Le Batard Show Reddit board, where I feared my sentiments would be drowned out by complaints and constant negativity. Instead, underneath a flood of posts praising Bellamy, I found one that summed up my thoughts better than I’ve managed to do here in nearly 1,000 words.

“From perpetual ‘2pts out of the final playoff spot’ to Champs and all the fun in between was worth it,” the post titled “The LeBatard show made me a fan of the Florida Panthers! I’m so happy for Roy” read. “Thank you to the show.”

Game 7 of the 2024 Stanley Cup Final will forever be one of my favorite sporting events I ever witnessed. And I might not have watched a second of it if it wasn’t for The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz. Thank you, indeed.

About Ben Axelrod

Ben Axelrod is a veteran of the sports media landscape, having most recently worked for NBC's Cleveland affiliate, WKYC. Prior to his time in Cleveland, he covered Ohio State football and the Big Ten for outlets including Cox Media Group, Bleacher Report, Scout and Rivals.