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Florida Panthers Excited for an NHL Return to the Olympics

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Florida Panthers center Sasha Barkov warms up prior to the World Cup of Hockey Pre-Tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. where Team USA defeated Team Finland, 3-2 on Sept. 13, 2016. (Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

FORT LAUDERDALE — Sasha Barkov was just an 18-year-old NHL rookie when he suited up for Finland at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The Florida Panthers captain says it “was one of the best experiences I have had — and not just in hockey but in my whole life. I was very fortunate to get to experience it.’’

Barkov may again get to represent his country at the Olympics.

The NHL, NHLPA, and IIHF announced Friday that the league would participate not only in the 2026 and 2030 Games but also in the 2025 NHL 4 Nations Face-Off.

That tournament replaces the All-Star Game next year, with NHL players from the United States, Canada, Finland, and Sweden competing in February.

Milan, Italy, will host the 2026 Games; France is expected to host the Games in 2030.

Two cities, one in Canada and one in the U.S., will host the 2025 event.

“It is one of the best hockey memories and hockey experiences I ever had in my life,” said Barkov, who only played two games at the Sochi Games after sustaining a knee injury that ended his rookie season with the Panthers.

“I remember every second I was there even though I was 18 and playing with some great players like Teemu Selanne, Kimmo Timonen, Olli Jokinen and many others. Just seeing what was happening there, not just hockey, but other sports and everyone is in the same village. It is just amazing.”

A return to high-end international play, where the best would participate, is exciting to NHL players, the Panthers included.

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No decision on whether Russia will be included in the 2026 Olympics has been made, although that country is not involved in the 2025 event.

The NHL will hold an All-Star Game in 2026 to kick off the Games.

As currently constructed, the Panthers would have several candidates for both the 4 Nations Face-Off and the Olympic games.

Barkov, considered one of the top players in the world, would all but be a shoo-in for Team Finland.

“It’s in two years and no one knows where I’ll be then,” he said with a humble grin.

Others who should be in the running for one — or both events include Matthew Tkachuk (U.S.), Sam Reinhart(Canada), Carter Verhaeghe (Canada), Aaron Ekblad (Canada), Brandon Montour (Canada), Gus Forsling (Finland), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Sweden), Uvis Balinskis (Latvia), and Anton Lundell (Finland).

“There are a lot of international events coming here and hopefully I play well and can make that team. It is a dream of mine,” said Tkachuk, who has represented Team USA at three world junior tournaments.

Keith Tkachuk played for Team USA at four Olympics starting as an amateur in 1992 at Albertville and then at the first including NHL players in 1998. Matthew’s younger brother Brady is also a prime candidate for Team USA.

“I will try to play my best and hopefully get the chance to represent my country,’’ Matthew continued, “because there is nothing like it.”

Said Forsling: “It would be an honor, for sure, and a lot of fun. But it’s not anything I am thinking about right now.”

The NHL had its players compete in the Olympics for the first time in 1998 at Nagano, and they returned four other times at Salt Lake City (2002), Torino (2006), Vancouver (2010), and Sochi (2014).

Players did not compete in South Korea in 2018 after the NHL did not come to an agreement with the IIHF and the IOC.

The World Cup of Hockey, which appeared to be a big success, has only been held once.

“It’s kind of sad because, (the Olympics) are probably the biggest sporting event in the world,’’ said Barkov, who has also represented Finland in several international events, including numerous junior championships, the World Championships, and the NHL’s World Cup of Hockey in 2016.

“It is once every four years and you grew up watching all the greats play in that tournament. And it’s not just hockey, but everything else. To be part of it, it is even bigger. I got to do it once and hope to do it again. … I don’t think anyone has said it’s not great.’’ 

The league said it planned to send players to the 2022 Games in Beijing but pulled the plug due to Covid complications.

“If you go back 30 years, i was not a fan of professionals being in the Olympics,” coach Paul Maurice said, “but they are all pretty much professionals now. The days of an amateur athlete at the Olympics are over. I watch all different kinds of sports in the Olympics, sports I do not watch for four years.

“But if there is some version of the biathlon where someone is on skis with a gun, I’m watching it. That’s cool as hell to me. … So, someone who does not watch a lot of hockey, that will be their experience with it. You get caught up in the emotions of it, and it’s the Olympics so it’s a different event. I think it’s great hockey’s going and all the countries get their best because there is so much pride and patriotism in the Olympics. So I think it’s great.”

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