JAGR MASTER: Peter Luukko, second from right, was among Florida Panthers officials that gave Jaromir Jagr a commemorative silver puck in 2016 after Jagr became the third-highest all time in NHL points. (Getty Images)

Five years removed, Luukko stays close to team

Sports executive Peter Luukko will be rooting hard for the Florida Panthers to capture their first Stanley Cup title since the team started play 30 years ago as an NHL expansion team.

The Panthers lead the best-of-seven Finals 3-2 against Edmonton heading into Friday’s Game 6 at Rogers Place in western Canada.

Luukko’s heart remains full with the Panthers after serving four years, from 2015-19, as the team’s executive chairman and alternate governor.

Five years later Luukko, a hockey lifer, is now chairman of Oak View Group’s Arena Alliance, a consortium of a few dozen arenas across the country that helps book events and sell sponsorships at their venues. The alliance extends to 20 NHL arenas, including Amerant Bank Arena, plus Climate Pledge Arena and UBS Arena, the two newest NHL venues, which OVG privately financed. Oak View Group is parent company of VenuesNow.

After spending 32 years in the NHL, including more than 20 years with the Philadelphia Flyers, ice still runs through Luukko’s veins as a confidante of league commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

Luukko recalled the feeling of being totally immersed in the Stanley Cup Finals twice while with the Flyers.

“I had no idea what was going on in the world during the Finals,” he said.

Now, after stepping aside from the Panthers, Luukko says team owner Vincent Viola’s commitment to the team and the south Florida community is reminiscent of what Ed Snider accomplished as owner of the Flyers for 50 years. Snider, who died in 2016 at age 83, was an entrepreneur who built an empire of sports and media assets, and Luukko feels Viola carries the same traits.

“I see those parallels,” Luukko said. “They’re different people, but common in their commitment, both emotionally and monetarily, to winning. As someone who was there (shortly) after Vinny Viola bought the team, it’s been fantastic to see. I’ve always kept in touch with Vinny, (president and CEO) Matt Caldwell and others to watch it all grow. You see what it’s done for youth hockey and players that are now being drafted out of Florida and getting college scholarships.”

About 10 years ago, Bettman told Luukko he should meet with Viola to see if he could help the team and the organization get back on its feet after Viola bought the franchise in 2013. That was the same year that Luukko left the Flyers and Comcast Spectacor, which owned that team and was entrenched in the venue management, concessions and marketing business.

Viola, a billionaire who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, is a graduate of the U.S. Military at West Point, an Army veteran and former chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange. At the time he acquired the Panthers, he was charged with turning the team around on the ice and on the business side for a club that struggled to draw fans was rumored to be leaving south Florida for greener pastures.

BETTING MAN: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Peter Luukko, then Florida Panthers executive chairman, meet during the 2017 NHL Draft at United Center.. (Getty Images)

“I went down to Florida and met with Vinny,” Luukko said. “He’s all Brooklyn; you could see he wears his heart on his sleeve, and his commitment and passion to win. He wasn’t looking to build a team that would just get into the playoffs, but to win it all. Like anything else, in the early days, you’ve got to learn to be patient, which is hard for somebody that’s had his success and his background, but you could see, as the organization grew, everybody’s grown with it, how that commitment has come to fruition.”

Under Luukko’s guidance, along ¬†with Caldwell and general managers Dale Tallon, and now Bill Zito, the Panthers jelled into a competitive team on the ice and the front office. Viola’s family is involved as well. His wife, Teresa, and sons John, Michael Travis, all fill roles as alternative governors with the Panthers, representing the team on league matters.

On the venue side, the Violas privately funded the development and construction of the Baptist Health IcePlex in Fort Lauderdale, which officially opened this March. At a cost of about $70 million, it’s tied to a renovation of War Memorial Auditorium, which was built in 1950. On its own, the practice facility encompasses two NHL regulation-size rinks, a 7,500-square-foot team store and a restaurant.

Prior to the 2023-24 season, Amerant Bank Arena, a 26-year-old building in Sunrise, Florida, went through extensive upgrades, extending to new HVAC, sound and LED sports lighting systems, new ice-level seating, a new group hospitality space and technology improvements. Last year, Amerant Bank signed a five-year arena naming rights deal with the Panthers, which expires in 2028, the same year as the team’s lease with Broward County.

As part of the revamping the business side, about five years ago, Panthers decided to self operate food service, among the select few in the big leagues to take it in-house. The result has been concession per caps that rank among the highest in the NHL, according to Luukko.

Per caps at the highest level of hockey typically run $33 to $36, food consultant Chris Bigelow said.

Given Viola’s military background, “you can eat off the floors,” Luukko said. “Profit margins are better going in-house, as long as you’re aware that you are going to have to make some capital investments from time to time. That’s never been an issue with Vinny. He spends the money, which helps lead to success all around. Being a family business, you want to control all aspects. They key is making sure spending the capital to keep everything fresh.”

Whether the Panthers pursue a new arena in the future is to be determined. Luukko, who grew up in the business running arenas and stadiums, says the building is in great shape, but it’s the next step that the team must consider as they move forward after making the Stanley Cup Finals each of the past two regular seasons. For concerts, attendance has been strong and Fort Lauderdale has proved to be a hot market for live music, he said.

“This team is built for the long haul,” Luukko said. “They’re going to be good for the next few years. The teams that win Stanley Cups are deep in talent and it’s the same with the Panthers. To watch something that has risen from the ashes is satisfying, from afar.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.