Florida Panthers team president Michael Yormark smelled a rat among the rats.
In Game 5 of his team's Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New Jersey Devils, the plastic rats that fans litter the Panthers' home ice with during victory celebrations were instead being thrown on faceoffs and during play. This was in violation of NHL rules, and risked the Panthers being whistled for a delay of game penalty.
Yormark announced on Monday that the team would stop selling the rats at their official store. His theory: Devils fans visiting BankAtlantic Center were the ones tossing the rodents on the ice in order to penalize the home team.
Laura Rubino found the claim to be patently absurd.
"That didn't make any sense," said Rubino, a 26-year-old Devils fan from Roseland, N.J. "I was like, 'Just own it. [Say] our fans were too exuberant, sorry we can't sell them anymore.'"
Tracking down Yormark on Twitter (@PanthersYormark), where he frequently interacts with fans and media, Rubino decided to file the following protest:
"It wasn't the nicest thing to say. But he kinda was."
A grad student at William Paterson, she was at the school on Tuesday morning while her Twitter feed was getting a surge in responses and followers. The reason? Yormark offered this retort to her criticism:
"I was like, 'Wow, this man is the president of a sports team and this is how he talks to people?' I would have been fine if he had said shut up, but he said 'your opinion doesn't matter.' I thought it was a fake account," she said.
[ Video: Florida Panthers lack reputation, not skill ]
Thanks to the Devils and their fans, Rubino had the last laugh for Game 6 in New Jersey on Tuesday night.
By early afternoon, the story had been picked up by the Newark Star-Ledger, which torched Yormark not only for his comments about Rubino but other Devils fans.
Her back-and-forth, however, stood out: The snark about the number of Twitter followers she had, combined with the quick dismissal of her opinion, seemed unusually harsh for a team executive. (Well, at least to those unfamiliar with his previous social media impulse control problems.)
"I really don't care how many Twitter followers I have. I'm on Twitter because it's fun," she said. "But to tell someone their opinion doesn't matter kinda rubs me the wrong way."
On Tuesday afternoon, a friend of Rubino's who works for the Devils reached out and asked for her phone number. She soon received a call from Will Carafello, director of digital marketing for the team, with an invitation: After sticking up for Devils fans in her battle with Yormark, the Devils wanted to invite her to watch Game 6 of their series from a luxury suite at Prudential Center:
Suite 202 to be exact.
Right above where Michael Yormark was seated for the game, indirectly posing for a photo:
They didn't interact at the arena, outside of someone in Yormark's entourage throwing up seven fingers as they departed the suite, referencing Thursday night's Game 7 after Travis Zajac's Game 6 overtime winner sent red rally towels flying onto the ice.
When she arrived back home, her quasi-rivalry with the Panthers president took another turn. Yormark dismissed her for having 70 followers; thanks to hockey fans that had become aware of the story — in full disclosure, we gave it a push as well — her Twitter follower total (her handle is @LaurenAshley07) had surged to over 1,200 in less than 24 hours.
Devils fans in particular were rallying on Twitter, hoping she could surpass Yormark's follower count (3,047) before Game 7.
"Maybe my opinion means more than his at that point," she joked.
(UPDATE: She passed him at around 4:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday afternoon.)
[ Three stars: Travis Zajac raises the Devils to Game 7 with Panthers ]
For Rubino, this surreal 24 hours of public discourse with an NHL executive, and the support she received after being called out, made her appreciate the tight knit and protective nature of puckheads.
"We're so used to being put down — we don't go to games, we're not passionate — it speaks what kind of people Devils fans. And hockey fans in general. I've had Flyers fans say they're following me, even though I'm a Devils fan," she said.
As for Yormark: "I'm big on karma. We'll see what happens in Game 7."
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