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From the Press Box: Gerard Gallant’s firing as Florida Panthers coach a real anomaly

Everything about the Florida coach’s firing was strange.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

One of the first things I do every year when the schedule comes out is see when the Florida Panthers are coming to town. In my eight seasons covering the Carolina Hurricanes, George Richards and Harvey Fialkov are probably the two visiting writers I have gotten to know the best. George and Harvey are standup guys, hardworking and taking their jobs seriously but easily approachable and a real pleasure to be around.

Not to mention, they are big fans of the local cuisine, which as any media member will tell you goes a long way:

So when I arrived at PNC Arena on Sunday afternoon and noticed no one in the visiting writers’ seats at the end of press row, I was surprised - and, honestly, pretty disappointed. I was looking forward to seeing George and Harvey, and with this being the Panthers’ only visit to Raleigh this season, it looked like I was going to have to make a trip to Sunrise to see them if I didn’t want to wait until next season.

Little did I know that their absence would play a bit role in the most surprising story in the NHL this season.

After a game, the writers and reporters go to the locker rooms of the team they are covering. A few, usually representing and the Associated Press, will try to hit both, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. Kurt Dusterberg, covering the game for the league website, did make it to both, getting a few short quotes from Panthers coach Gerard Gallant, nothing out of the ordinary.

And then about ten minutes after Bill Peters finished his postgame media availability, Cory Lavalette of North State Journal (and late of this website) saw this tweet, which he relayed to a bewildered press room:

We all scratched our heads. Didn’t Kurt just get quotes from him? Why do you make this move now? Did we miss something?

To be honest, my first thought when I heard “Florida fired their coach” was that the Gators had fired Jim McElwain, which struck me as odd given that they’re playing in the SEC Championship next weekend.

I have to take a moment here to explain how utterly bizarre it is to allow a coach to do a postgame media availabililty when his firing is imminent. It is extremely strange. NHL teams have five minutes following the end of a game to open their locker rooms to the media, and usually in that time when a firing is imminent the GM will pull the coach aside and stall the media until the news is announced.

But with George and Harvey nowhere to be found, and few local media interested in the Panthers locker room, Gallant went out to face the media (such as it was) an unknowing dead man walking.

So we’re all finishing our stories, working the news of Gallant’s firing into our recaps, Luke DeCock of the N&O researching how many coaches have been fired after losing to the Hurricanes (he had gotten to one, Don Waddell firing Curt Fraser following a Thrashers loss, by the time I left the arena), when this already strange story took a surreal turn.

N&O photographer Chris Seward told us that he had heard through the grapevine that a couple of people were waiting at the north security gate—with a lot of bags—for a cab to pick them up. Kurt quickly put two and two together and took off to the north loading dock.

Chip Alexander of the N&O, Andrew Schnittker of the Technician and I shrugged our shoulders and started down to the other end of the arena. Cory and AP reporter Mike Potter followed in short order. Kurt, who had beaten us to the back door by about 30 seconds, went outside over the objections of the security guard and approached Gallant and former assistant Mike Kelly.

It didn’t take long for Gallant to confirm the news. After getting confirmation, Kurt offered his condolences to Gallant, and said “I thought you did a good job.”

Gallant’s response? “I thought so too.”

And with that, we all went back in, and I tweeted about the absurdity of what had just gone down:

And the most ironic thing of all? The GM who pulled the trigger on Gallant was former Canes assistant coach Tom Rowe, in his first season as Panthers general manager.

Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News, picking up on my earlier tweet that George and Harvey weren’t in the building tonight, found the timing suspicious, to say the least.

With that, and my iPad battery at 2%, it was time to hit the road. I might cover hockey for another thirty years and never see anything that bizarre.

And I hope Gallant and Kelly made it to a hotel safely.