FORT LAUDERDALE — It did not take Aaron Ekblad long to sum up why Florida Panthers fans loved Radko Gudas as much as they do.
“He was a teddy bear,” Ekblad said, “but you definitely did not want to get caught in the tracks when he is out there.
“He was just an awesome person, someone we looked up to when he was here and still do. He is the best guy. You cannot say enough good things about him.’’
Gudas became a fan favorite in his three seasons with the Panthers as much for his rough-and-tumble play on the ice as his soft, friendly demeanor off it.
Gudas will be back at Amerant Bank Arena Monday for the first time since leaving the Panthers during the offseason when Florida host the Anaheim Ducks in an afternoon matinee.
As much as the Panthers would have loved to have kept Gudas last summer, Anaheim offered him a three-year, $12 million contract the 33-year-old defenseman could not turn down.
And Gudas has turned into a smart move for the struggling Ducks. With six goals in 37 games, Gudas has matched his career high.
“You are going to hear ‘we love that guy’ from every player on the team,” coach Paul Maurice said. “There are special people, and Radko is one of them. And the fans usually pick up on the special ones. They can tell there is a personality there. He brought so much joy and personality and always had that big smile on his face. He would sit in the back row of the theater, and his beard would laugh. He would laugh, and the beard would shake. Everyone loved that.
“But in a game, he would get so intense, it was almost frightening. When he got mad, even his own teammates would watch to see what would happen next. His kids were always around, great family guy. Always smiling. So, when he signed with (Anaheim), we were all like, ‘yeah, we get it. Great contract, Radko.’ Would we love to have him? 100 percent. But that was a good thing happening to a good guy. And it is a great signing for them. With that young team, he’s the perfect guy.’’
The Panthers all understand why Gudas had to move on, and his departure did not tarnish what he had done while in Florida.
Gudas, as Brandon Montour said, helped change the culture of the Panthers.
While Patric Hornqvist was the first acquisition by new general manager Bill Zito in 2020, Gudas was his first free-agent signee a few weeks later.
If anyone wondered what direction Zito wanted to take the Panthers, those two players erased any doubt: Florida would be much harder to play against.
“You knew about him as a player, what he brings on the ice, and his presence,” Montour said. “He is the type of player every team needs. We definitely miss his presence. He is a warrior out there and he got paid for it.
“As good a player as he is, he is extremely well-liked and is a great person off the ice. He brought a positive mindset every day and the culture changed when he was one of the guys brought to Florida. He was one of the guys Bill brought in and definitely helped start the culture change here.”
This is not Gudas’s first meeting with his former mates.
In November, the Panthers traveled to Anaheim but only had a little time to visit with their old pal.
“We finished in Anaheim. I walked into the hall, and our entire team is down there, and they are laughing,” Maurice said, recalling the postgame outside the locker room area at Honda Center. “In the back of it, there’s Radko. I gave him a wave, that’s the player’s place, but he is that guy. He is well loved.”
Said Ekblad: “He is a guy’s guy, someone you want to hang out with on a daily basis. Hey, he has four kids and is a terrific dad.
On Sunday afternoon, Gudas and his former teammates had a proper reunion in Fort Lauderdale as a large group met up with Gudas and Frank Vatrano for lunch.
Monday, the Panthers will honor their all-time hits leader with a video tribute during a break in the action.
Expect a loud ovation from the home crowd.
It is well deserved.
“The fans loved him, and the guys in here loved him. I loved him,” said Gus Forsling, who was paired up with Gudas when he first arrived in 2021.
“There are a lot of memories with that guy. It’s going to be fun.”
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ANAHEIM DUCKS @ FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Monday, 1 p.m.
- Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL App
- This Season — At Anaheim: Panthers 2, Ducks 1 (Nov. 17). At Florida: Monday.
- Last Season: Florida won 2-0
- All-time Regular Season Series: Florida leads 22-14-2, 3 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Wednesday vs. Detroit, 7 p.m.