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Sasha Barkov Highlights Big Night for Finnish Hockey in Florida

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Florida Panthers captain Sasha Barkov is saluted by the crowd after being named ‘Second Star of the Game’ in a 5-4 win over the Dallas Stars on Wednesday night in Sunrise. Barkov was one of eight Finnish players on the ice as Finland celebrated its 106th Independence Day. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

SUNRISE — Wednesday night’s game just meant more to the Florida Panthers and the Dallas Stars.

A total of eight Finnish players took the ice in front of a nationally-televised audience on the 106th anniversary of Finland declaring its independence.

And, as always, Sasha Barkov was the center of the action.

“He’s huge,” fellow Finn Anton Lundell said when Barkov broke the Panthers’ all-time record for games played.

“He’s probably one of the most famous hockey players, for sure. Every kid growing up is looking up to Barky — his shootout moves, highlight plays — including me growing up.

“He’s just like a ‘Wow!’ player. He always comes up with something you don’t see often. To be close to him and see him in every practice and game, you still see stuff you haven’t seen.”

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With a large Finnish population in Florida, coupled with the love local fans have built up for Barkov over his 10-year run with the Panthers, you could tell there was a lot of pride in the building on Friday.

Fans flooded the glass in warm-ups with Finnish flags, signs and Team Finland jerseys with ‘Barkov’ and ‘Lundell’ on the back.

A few fans even showed Lundell some extra appreciation by showing up in his old HIFK jersey and bringing in Inter Miami gear to honor the 22-year-old forward and the well-noted soccer fan.

“My mom was here and she said there was a lot ot of Finnish people in the stands as well,” Lundell said.

“I’m really happy to hear that and I’m just trying to do my best for all of the little boys and girls who are looking up to me. I remember growing up, I loved to follow hockey and follow some players and it was so cool to see what they did. So I am trying to keep that in mind, trying to be myself and I’m really happy to see that somebody likes me.”

Fellow Finnish Panthers Eetu Luostarinen and Niko Mikkola received love via signs as well.

“It’s amazing,” Barkov said.

“We’ve always had a lot of Finnish fans in Florida, and obviously, it’s a good vacation spot for them.

“I think there are straight flights from Helsinki to here now, so it’s amazing. I get a lot of messages from friends almost every game that somebody is coming to the game, but it’s fun.

“It’s nice to see them come here and support us. We have a lot of Finnish players here and a good history with Finnish players, so this is a good spot for them to go on a vacation from Finland to watch hockey and go to the beach.”

Barkov has captivated Finnish fans for years.

Even before he stepped foot on NHL ice and broke the Panthers’ records for games played (686), goals (251) and points (655).

By the time he was drafted second overall by the Panthers in 2013, Barkov was a legend for his hometown Tappara club in Tampere.

After working his way through the U16 through U20 ranks, Barkov debuted for Tappara’s men’s club in the Finnish Elite League as a 16-year-old in 2011.

He had 64 points in 85 games in two seasons for the club his dad spent 10 years with.

Barkov and his father, Alexander Sr., are co-owners of the club to this day.

“They are highly respected names there in Finland,” fellow Tampere native and Dallas star Roope Hintz said of the Barkov family.

“[Sasha] is a great friend of mine, too, and he is a great example for a lot of younger guys.”

“He is a huge influence and a huge name in Finland,” Dallas defenseman Miro Heiskanen added.

“You know there is a lot of young players who look up to him. He is a great player and a great guy.”

Hintz was one of a few Finnish headliners on Wednesday night and his game is pretty similar to Barkov.

He is a potent goal-scorer, putting up 37 in the past two seasons while having a strong playmaking game to go with it, but he is equally as responsible in the defensive zone and has grown into the Stars’ bonafide top line center.

Lundell, Luostarinen and so many other Finnish forwards have developed strong two-way games growing up as well.

“You turn pro when you are younger and then it’s a bit more of a defensive system that we played over there,” said Hintz, who also made his pro debut with Tappara’s rival, Ilves Tampere, as a 16-year-old.

“We learned really young, too, how to defend as a forward, especially when you are a center, so you have to go both ways a lot. You have to skate a lot: o-zone, d-zone, back and forth.”

There was a sense of pride for all of the Finns in the building that night.

Five of the eight Finnish players registered a point and put their talents on full display for a nationally televised audience to see.

“It’s pretty crazy to think about,” Lundell said.

“Growing up, you don’t think that far ahead and I’m playing here with big players and against a lot of Finns, but I am really happy to see eight Finns in one game.

“I am really happy to see that we did something right in Finland and that we were able to produce top players. Most of the players in that game are in big roles for their team, but overall, I’m really happy to see that from a small country like Finland, we’re able to bring players over and show that we’re doing something right.”

While Barkov is never one to boast about his influence in Finland, he could not help but feel pride either.

Both while catching up with an old friend of his who became a star player in his own right in Hintz and seeing all of the Finnish flags and jerseys regardless of whether they had his name, Lundell’s name or anyone else’s on it.

”I don’t know, I’m just doing my job,” Barkov said.

”If somebody likes me, good. If somebody doesn’t like me, that’s fine. It’s their own decision. But I take a lot of pride in coming from Finland, coming from where I came from and playing here. It’s been a fun ride for me and, of course, I appreciate what I had in Finland and how much they helped me develop into the player I am today and I am having a lot of fun here.”

ON DECK

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS @ FLORIDA PANTHERS 

  • When: Friday, 7 p.m.
  • Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
  • TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
  • Radio: WAXY 790-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
  • Season Series — At Florida: Friday. At Pittsburgh: Jan. 26; Feb. 14.
  • Last Season: Penguins won 2-1
  • All-time regular season series: Penguins lead 56-36-7, 4 ties
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Sunday at Columbus, 1 p.m.

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