TAMPA — There was no doubt Sasha Barkov would represent Finland and return to the Winter Olympics and on Thursday it became official.
Barkov joined Sebastian Aho and Mikko Rantanen as the first three members of Finland’s Olympic team on Thursday.
”It means a lot,” said Barkov, who went to Sochi for the 2014 Olympics as a Florida Panthers rookie. “I was really lucky in 2014 when I got to play a couple games in Sochi and that is an experience I will never be able to forget.
“Right now, it’s a huge honor for me to represent Finland. NHL players didn’t go last time, so you never take it for granted. Any chance you get to represent Team Finland is a huge honor.”
Barkov, who sustained a knee injury at the 2014 games which basically ended his rookie season, has evolved into one of the top players in the NHL since.
In 2014, Barkov was one of Finland’s promising kids.
Now, he is one of the top hockey players in the world.
By 2016, the team signed Barkov to a six-year contract. Two years later, he was named the team’s 10th captain in franchise history.
In 2021, Barkov won the first Selke Trophy in franchise history. As he enters his ninth NHL season at just 26, Barkov is not a kid anymore.
“It was big,’’ Barkov said of the 2014 games. “Playing with Teemu Selanne, Kimmo Timonen and Olli Jokinen … many other good players who I looked up to when I was young. To be able to be in the same locker room with them, see what they do on and off the ice, we had a couple dinners and they told stories about being in the NHL. It was a huge experience for me. In my early years, I got to play with such huge legends … and that helped me a lot.”
Finland is expected to do very well in Beijing.
”We have great players in the NHL and Team Finland is known for playing as a team, playing together and competing 100 percent every shift,” Barkov said.
“We give 100 percent on every shift and in every situation and that’s why Team Finland has had success. We have great coaching and great atmosphere at the World Championships and Olympics so I am really looking forward to it.”
Barkov may be the first member of the Panthers to be announced to a national Olympic team, but he will not be the last.
Jonathan Huberdeau will certainly be invited to play for Team Canada where Robert Luongo is part of the management team. Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar could also factor into Team Canada’s decision.
Other Panthers who could be headed to Beijing include Anton Lundell and Markus Nutivaara (Finland); Sergei Bobrovsky (Russia); Patric Hornqvist (Sweden); Radko Gudas (Czech).
Huberdeau, Barkov’s longtime teammate, agreed it would be strange going against Barkov on the global stage.
“We obviously expected Barky to be named to Team Finland and it would be cool,” Huberdeau said. “Obviously when you get there, (friendships) don’t matter because you are playing for your country. I think we played against each other at World Junior once, but that was when we were younger. That would be the second time. To play for Team Canada would be great — and then I could see Barky there.
”It would be a huge honor to play (for Team Canada) because you dream of it when you’re young and you watch the Olympics at your house. I think it would be cool, a great experience. I’m going to work hard this year and hopefully I get to be on that team.”