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All sunshine and blue sky for Dale Tallon and Panthers

From his condominium, Panthers general manager Dale Tallon described the scene outside his window: a sandy beach, a blue sky, bright sunshine and a high-flying kite blowing in the warm winter air.

"It's actually a little cold — 68 degrees, and when it drops to 58 tonight people will get out their parkas,'' Tallon said over the phone with a laugh. "What's not to like about living in South Florida?''

Indeed, life is good for the man who spent the bulk of his career in the Blackhawks organization and the relatively new hockey community Tallon began to enhance six years ago with his impeccable eye for talent. Leading the Panthers since 2010, Tallon looks with pride toward Friday's game in Sunrise, Fla., between his current team, one of the league's biggest surprises atop the Atlantic Division, and the visiting Hawks, whose roster still is full of Tallon's fingerprints.

"We're certainly not in their class yet, but we'll give them a good fight,'' said Tallon, 65. "We're going to build something special down here, and you can see some of that now. We're doing the same things we did all those years up in Chicago.''

What Tallon did for the Hawks often gets overlooked but never should go unappreciated.

Before being fired July 14, 2009, Tallon assembled the core that has remained intact for the Hawks through all the salary-cap purges. It bears repeating with the Hawks looking capable of winning their fourth championship in seven years that Tallon drafted Jonathan Toews in 2006 and Patrick Kane in 2007. Tallon selected Niklas Hjalmarsson in the fourth round of the 2005 draft shortly after taking over as Hawks GM and signed Marian Hossa in 2009 just 13 days before losing his job. He also played a key front-office role when the Hawks drafted Duncan Keith in 2002 and Brent Seabrook in 2003 — players he also locked up long term with smart contracts — and Corey Crawford in 2003.

In other words, every indispensable player during three Stanley Cup titles became a Hawk in no small part because of Tallon.

"I'm most impressed by what they have achieved off the ice and I'm proud to call all of them my friends,'' Tallon said. "I'm excited both teams are playing well, honestly. It's fabulous. I'm proud of the Blackhawks team, but I've moved on.''

Not surprisingly, Tallon's Panthers steadily moved toward respectability. Only one player remains from the roster he inherited. Like Tallon did with the Hawks, he took advantage of drafting high and hitting on elite young players such as Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. The Panthers' middle-round selections also filled holes.

"It's a draft philosophy, and our staff is a big part of that,'' Tallon said. "It takes time to develop. Now we have a strong core, and we've brought in some experience. It's a nice mix.''

The mix includes former Hawks Brian Campbell and Dave Bolland, a free-agent disappointment because of injury. But the biggest impact came from the acquisitions of two veterans — winger Jaromir Jagr and goalie Roberto Luongo — who provided the ideal complement to the Panthers youth. At 43, Jagr leads the Panthers in scoring, and Luongo, 36, looks as sharp as he did during his first tour with the team a decade ago.

"A lot of people used to look at this as a good way to go into retirement by playing their last few years in Florida. … We've tried to change that and make it a place people want to play – and win,'' Tallon said. "They're showing the young guys the way.''

Consequently, more fans are finding their way to the BB&T Center. Nothing drummed up interest more than the franchise-record 12-game winning streak, which the Hawks tied as the NHL's longest this season. During it, the Panthers sold 2,500 walk-up tickets against the Blue Jackets — an encouraging sign for a team still 26th in attendance with an average crowd of 14,072.

"It's a complete reversal of culture,'' Tallon said.

Winning contributed, but so did a recommitment from Panthers ownership. With the NHL exploring expansion to Las Vegas and Quebec, it was no insignificant measure in December when the Broward County Commission approved $86 million in public funds to improve the Panthers' bleak financial situation. One analysis showed the team was losing $114,000 a day.

"We're here to stay and win a championship,'' Panthers co-owner Doug Cifu told the board.

The same desire drives Tallon, who already has helped build one Cup winner. He maintains a residence in Chicago and cherishes his late-summer days golfing at Conway Farms in Lake Forest. Home always will include an Indianhead for a guy who spent five years as a player, 16 as an announcer and 11 as an executive for the Hawks organization.

"I have the best of both worlds,'' Tallon said. "You go where you can make the best of it. I'm proud to be a Florida Panther, really happy and fortunate. Hopefully, one day it can be a Blackhawks-Panthers Stanley Cup final. That's the goal.''

Thanks to Tallon, the South Florida climate is right for dreaming.

dhaugh@tribpub.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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