SUNRISE, Fla. – It’s no secret that Patric Hornqvist has been well-received since arriving in South Florida.
He was acquired in a late September trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the first big move made by Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito after he was hired earlier in the month.
Hornqvist has been a perfect fit with the Panthers, adding an uplifting, veteran presence in the locker room and producing at an exceptional level on the ice.
The 34-year-old has amassed 15 points (8-7-15) over his fist 17 games with Florida, a nearly point-per-game pace (0.88).
Hornqvist made the trek down to Broward County a few weeks after the trade and instantly began getting to know many of his new teammates. He joined them for informal practices at the Panthers Ice Den in Coral Springs almost immediately after moving down from Pennsylvania with his family.
“It’s hard when you have six, seven, eight new players,” Hornqvist said in late January. “We’ve all been here for a long time now and it helped to get to those two months of skating before camp to get to know everyone.”
It didn’t take long for a strong bond to begin forming between Florida’s returning players and the new guys, which is why it was so crucial that so many of the players were in town and working out at the rink long before training camp opened.
Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville has been following Hornqvist’s career for quite a while, dating back to when both were a part of the traditional, pre-COVID Central Division; Quenneville coaching the Chicago Blackhawks and Hornqvist playing for the Nashville Predators.
Needless to say, Coach Q had a very good idea of the kind of athlete and person he was getting when Florida traded for Hornqvist.
“He brings a unique approach to the game,” Quenneville said following Tuesday’s practice at the BB&T Center. “He’s been a very competitive guy in his career. I think one thing he does bring is a very businesslike approach to the game. Accountability is part of what he brings to his teammates and to the team.”
That hard-working mentality and strong work ethic that began reverberating around the Panthers locker room in November and December has carried over to the regular season, and the results are showing in the standings.
Florida enters Wednesday’s game against the visiting Dallas Stars sitting alone in first place of the new, temporary Central Division with an eye-popping 12-3-2 record.
“That hunger he has to go on the ice and do everything you can to the best of your ability has translated to an attitude,” Quenneville said. “Be it going into games or going into practices, with that type of an attitude you should be getting better, and that’s what we’re seeing.”
The close-knit locker room has been a topic of discussion all season, with Hornqvist at the heart of many of those conversations. He has been viewed as a source of positive energy during practices since arriving from Pittsburgh, quickly becoming a beloved teammate and integral part of the club’s daily inspiration and success.
Never had that been more apparent for the hockey world to see than it was Monday night at the BB&T Center, during the second period of Florida’s 3-1 win over the Dallas Stars.
Late in the middle period of a then-tied game, Hornqvist dropped the gloves with Stars defenseman and Swedish countryman John Klingberg, landing quite a few punches in a furious flurry of fisticuffs.
Hornqvist and Klingberg drop the gloves. 🥊 pic.twitter.com/6Wzc9P7nb9— Jameson Olive (@JamesonCoop) February 23, 2021
Just over two minutes later, with Hornqvist serving his five-minute major for fighting, Florida scored what ended up being the game-winning goal.
Now fast forward to the opening minutes of the third period.
A stoppage in play about two minutes into the final frame allowed Klingberg and Hornqvist to leave their respective penalty boxes and skate across the ice back to their benches.
That’s when the entire Panthers team stood up and started banging their sticks on the boards in front of Florida’s bench, whooping and hollering their approval and appreciation for the effort and exertion put forth by Hornqvist in the fight.
“When you come out of the box like that and you see everyone is giving you respect, it means a lot to me,” Hornqvist said Tuesday.
The collective gesture was the team’s way of acknowledging that the boost of energy from watching Hornqvist fight may have played a role in them taking the lead just minutes later.
The standing ovation also showed the level of esteem and regard Hornqvist’s colleagues hold him in.
Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said as much following the game.
“It was a great fight between two Swedes,” Barkov said through a smile. “[Hornqvist] is a great teammate and a great leader. He would do anything for the team to get the team going. To have a guy like him on the ice, in the locker room and on the bench is a huge plus for us.”
Not bad considering Hornqvist has only played 17 games in a Panthers sweater.
Indeed, there is no denying the impact he’s made, and Monday’s endorsement from his teammates was a nice indicator of that.
“It was a good and cool moment, for sure,” he said.
After Monday’s practice, Hornqvist sat down for a quick Zoom with Local 10 to discuss how the season is going for him so far, what it’s like becoming a key part of a team he’s barely played for and how the move to South Florida has gone for his family.
It’s been a crazy few months, moving to a new team and city and then jumping right into the season, all with an ongoing pandemic. How have you handled it all?
It was obviously a little roller coaster, getting traded in the middle of the offseason and then getting your family and yourself down here to prepare for this season with COVID and everything going on. We moved maybe a month after we got traded. I’ve got my family here, my kids are in school, so we’re all settling down that way.
You already have a great rapport with your teammates despite only being down here for a few months. How did that develop so quickly?
I got a good start with the team. I started working out with the group for maybe 10 weeks and then when training camp came, it just glued together. When you get asked to be an assistant captain too, it means they think a lot of me, and I think a lot of myself too. I have high expectations for myself and they have high expectations for me, so I like that kind of role and yeah, it’s been working really well for me and the team.
You mentioned being named an assistant captain. Considering you’re so new to the team, how were you asked? Did they make a big deal of it?
No, it was a little behind the scenes. Bill [Zito] came up to me and said, ‘We want you to be the assistant captain’ and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s great.’ I always want to be a leader on and off the ice and help team to win, so I was honored.
Often when a player moves to a new team there is an adjustment period while they get acclimated to a new city and new teammates, which can sometimes hinder their production. That hasn’t happened with you in Florida.
I think I’m playing the same way every shift and every game and every team I’ve been on. I’m not going to change my role. I know what I’m good at and I just try to do those things and help the team to win, so it’s not really complicated for me. Obviously playing with [Jonathan Huberdeau] and [Alex Wennberg] helps too. They are two great players, they’re smart players and they’re pass-first guys. I like to shoot, so the fit is really good. I think we’ve obviously been off to a really hot start, but we just keep trying to get better every time we come to the rink. That’s our goal from now on and we’ll see how far it’s going to take us.
When you were in Pittsburgh you got to skate with some of the best players in the world in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Now in South Florida you’re skating with Jonathan Huberdeau, Sasha Barkov and Aaron Ekblad. How do you see these young, up-and-coming stars when compared to some of the best ever?
Obviously [Crosby] and [Malkin] are the highest level you go to. They’re winning Stanley Cups and winning championships and they’ve been in the league for probably 500-600 more games than the players on our team, but one day those guys can easily be up there and challenge them and take it over. It’s always been fun to be around good players. They always give you that extra spark, and to see them on a daily basis, you see how good they are on small things. You pick up things they do on the boards or tiny plays around the net, they always seem to find the puck on their stick. That’s what separates the really good players from the good players.
You played for some great coaches over the years in both Pittsburgh and Nashville, and now you get to play for a future Hall of Famer in Joel Quenneville. What’s your impression been of him so far?
He’s a great guy and a great coach. He’s always positive and he’s honest; that’s what I like about a coach. If you don’t have a great game or a good shift, he’s on you to make sure you can play better out there. He’s obviously smart behind the bench, he knows the X’s and O’s…it’s a reason why he’s been successful and won a lot of Stanley Cups. And then you can tell by his personality he knows what he has to do to make the team better, and I think he does a good job every single day of that.
The last thing I want to ask is something you touched on before; how are you and your family adjusting to living in South Florida after making such a big move away from a place in Pittsburgh that you called home for so long?
It’s been great. The Florida Panthers really took care of me and my family from the first day. They really helped me out with all the small things and the big things, so the move went really smooth. My kids like it and my wife likes it, so hopefully can stay here for a long time.