BOSTON — Andrew Peeke might owe his NHL career to Stanley C. Panther.

Peeke was 4 years old when his parents took him to a skating event hosted by the Florida Panthers mascot. From there, the Parkland, Florida, native fell in love with hockey and, in turn, fell in love with the Florida Panthers.

That love was fostered by his father, Cliff Peeke, a Michigan native who was a season-ticket holder for the Panthers. Andrew practically grew up going to their arena in Sunrise, watching exciting if not always successful hockey.

“As a fan, there wasn’t a lot of playoff games or playoff atmospheres, so obviously being a fan at the time was tough,” Peeke said.

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A lot has changed since then. Florida’s arena is packed for home games. The Panthers are Stanley Cup contenders. And Andrew Peeke is now rooting against them.

He has to, because they’re trying to end his season.

Peeke is defenseman for the Boston Bruins, who are facing the Panthers in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. He spent most of his life hoping that one of the league’s least successful franchises could finally find success. Now, he’s trying to help his team prevent it.

“Being able to see that building full and the passion [Panthers fans] have … right now, that’s not what I care about,” he said. “Right now, I’m trying to knock them out in the next couple of games. Being able to basically say ‘screw you guys.'”

Peeke, 26, was acquired by Boston from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a trade on March 8. It’s his fifth season in the NHL, one limited to 38 regular-season games due to injury. He has played his first three career postseason games with the Bruins, including Game 3 against his childhood team, the Panthers.

“It’s pretty cool. If you’re going to tell young me that one day I’ve been playing against this team, I would tell you ‘no way,'” he said. “But being in this spot, obviously playing for the Bruins and having that honor, is pretty special. That it’s against your hometown team makes it even better.”

WHEN NHL PLAYERS talk about facing the team they cheered for as a young fan, they’re usually speaking of someone who used to wear Maple Leafs pajamas. It’s not typically someone who cheered for Ed “JovoCop” Jovanovski, Peeke’s favorite Florida Panther, in an arena where fans throw rubber rats on the ice.

(For the record, Peeke said he has never thrown one. Or at least he believes he hasn’t.)

Peeke is one of nearly a dozen current NHL players with roots in Florida, some of whom also grew up Panthers fans. Detroit Red Wings defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere idolized Pavel Bure growing up. Ottawa Senators defenseman Jakob Chychrun played in the Florida Jr. Panthers program. So did Colorado Avalanche forward Brandon Duhaime, a Coral Springs native who grew up a die-hard Panthers fan.

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Like many Florida-born players with designs on a pro hockey career, Peeke left the state at 15 years old to hone his skills and get the attention of the hockey world. He credits his parents for making the financial sacrifice to send him to South Kent Prep School in Connecticut. From there, he played for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL before being drafted by the Blue Jackets No. 34 in 2016. He played three seasons for the University of Notre Dame and was the team’s captain in 2018-2019. He made his NHL debut the following season.

Could he have still forged that path had he remained in Florida?

“It’s tough to say. I don’t have the crystal ball, but every year you stay in Florida past a certain age, it’s more and more unlikely,” he said. “If you’re a scout, you’re probably not going down there as much as coming to see players in Boston.”

That might eventually change. According to USA Hockey, participation numbers in Florida continue to trend up: Over the past five years, the number of players ages 15 and 16 in Florida increased by 28%, and the number of 9- and 10-year-old players has increased by 32%

The Panthers’ recent success will only help that growth. After making the playoffs twice in 18 seasons, Florida has appeared in the postseason for five straight seasons, losing in the Stanley Cup Final last season to the Vegas Golden Knights.

“Obviously being a Florida guy, I want the game to grow, so them being in the playoffs is a great thing for Florida hockey,” Peeke said.

Unfortunately, what’s good for Florida isn’t good for Andrew Peeke this postseason.

“I have a ton of Florida fan friends, so they’re torn. But that’s their problem,” he said. “I’ve got to focus on wearing the ‘B’ and playing for the guys.”