SUNRISE — When Patric Hornqvist was traded to the Florida Panthers in 2020, then-Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford was asked what Hornqvist had meant to the Penguins.
“He changed the culture,” Rutherford replied.
One could say he has done the same thing for the Panthers.
“He is one of the biggest reasons why we work so hard in every practice and every game,” Sasha Barkov said. “We never give up because that’s how he is and that’s how he wants everyone around him to be. He is just special. He will push you and never give up on you or the team.”
Hornqvist was the first player brought in by Florida’s new management team headed by general manager Bill Zito that summer.
Florida traded a promising-yet-frustrating young defenseman in Mike Matheson as well as fourth-line center Colton Sceviour to the Penguins in exchange for a cagey veteran who had a big hand in two Stanley Cup wins by the Penguins.
When Zito took over, the book on the Panthers was that no one questioned the talent on the team.
But they lacked a certain something.
Hornqvist helped fill that void.
“He has helped out tremendously,” Andrew Brunette said. “His intensity, his competitiveness has rubbed off on a lot of people. It has made our practices much better, much harder. There is more compete. He just brings a fire that every day the bench has more energy. He has been through so many things. He’s vocal. He brings that intensity to every practice. And it is contagious.”
A story Zito liked to tell when Hornqvist arrived was of one of his first practices with his new team.
The Panthers were working on the power play and, after a while, decided to call it a day.
That was not good enough for Hornqvist. He pulled everyone back onto the ice to continue their work.
”He is one of a kind,” Barkov said. “What he brings to this team is the work ethic and wanting to be better every practice. Every drill we do, that’s how he has been. And it doesn’t matter what time of the year it is — be it the first day of summer after the season, he’s going 110 percent.
“When you go on the ice, you don’t want to be the guy who goes 50 percent when there is another going 110. I have been fortunate to have been on the ice when it was just the two of us, whether we were hurt or it was just a day off. And we 110 even if we’re not wearing full gear.
“It has been an unbelievable two years with him. He has taught me a lot of stuff. I have learned a lot from him. He is one of a kind and that is exactly the guy you want to have on your team.”
Hornqvist, initially, was not real happy with the trade to Florida which led to the announcement of the deal being held up after leaking out.
Holding a no-trade clause, Hornqvist could have put the brakes on but after talking it over with his family, he decided to move south.
At the time, Hornqvist said he was “blindsided” by the trade and was legitimately shocked he was one of the first core Penguins to be moved.
Yet as Hornqvist repeated Tuesday morning — almost two years after being traded — he wanted to go to a team that wanted him.
Pittsburgh, right then and there, was not that team.
“It has been great since my first day here,” Hornqvist said. “People have treated me very well and in my first year here, we got off to a really good start. It has just kept going since. I think they always had the right pieces here, but once they started winning here, they believed in themselves and saw how much fun it is to win.
“Now, we just have to keep going and prove it in the postseason. I came from Pittsburgh from here because they didn’t want me and Florida wanted me. I saw a new opportunity with a new group and a new GM with a good coaching staff. In my mind, I thought Florida would be a playoff team and we have been. Now we’re at the top of the standings and have high expectations for ourselves. We’re enjoying it.”
The trade itself has worked out splendidly for the Panthers although, at the time, some who did not follow Florida closely wondered why Zito pulled the trigger.
Matheson, while potentially not hitting his prime yet, had a propensity for turnovers and had six years left on his contract.
Hornqvist, on the other hand, was winding things down at 33 and had three years left on his deal with an annual cap hit of $5.3 million.
Florida tried to get the remainder of Hornqvist’s contract insured — another reason the trade took longer to announce than usual — but ultimately could not.
With that financial uncertainty, Zito talked Pittsburgh into taking Sceviour — and his $1.5 million salary — to soften the blow.
It was, at the time, sort of a risky move for the Panthers.
Yet it was also one they had to make.
Florida has not looked back since.
“This is a guy who just competes like a warrior,’’ Zito said at the time of the trade. “We are looking for leadership, we’re looking for compete, we’re looking for people who want to win. He’s a winner. That’s the best way to describe it right? He’s just a winner.”
And he has helped the Panthers become one as well.
“We got a lot of new faces,” MacKenzie Weegar said of the Panthers’ 2020 offseason. “Credit to Zito for finding these guys. They are all character guys who fit in from Day 1. These are the right guys and they have fit right into the room. We used to talk about how close we were as a group but this team, it will go down in history for me. I love all those guys in that room.”
NHL STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
FLORIDA PANTHERS V. WASHINGTON CAPITALS (Caps lead 1-0)
- Game 2: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, TBS
- Radio: WQAM 560 (flagship); WMEN 640 (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3 (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
PANTHERS V. CAPITALS
- Regular season series — Florida won 2-1: @Florida 5, Washington 4 OT (Nov. 4); @Washington 4, Panthers 3 (Nov. 26); @Florida 5, Washington 4 (Nov. 30)
- All-time regular season series: Capitals lead 67-44-11, 9 ties
- Playoff history: First meeting.
- First-round schedule — Game 1: Washington 4, @Florida 2; Game 2: Washington at Florida, Thursday, 7:30 (TBS/BSF); Game 3: Florida at Washington, Saturday, 1 (ESPN/BSF); Game 4: Florida at Washington, May 9, 7 (TBS/BSF); Game 5*: Washington at Florida, May 11; Game 6*: Florida at Washington, May 13; Game 7: Washington at Florida, May 15. *If necessary