Could Matthew Tkachuk become the biggest hockey star to ever come through South Florida?
And in some ways, is he already there?
Perhaps asking such a question is premature. Even a bit hyperbolic, or at least a manifestation of recency bias. How can someone who is on the verge of finishing his first campaign with the Florida Panthers — a franchise that has had more than 440 players over its near 30-year history — already create this sort of discussion?
Maybe it has more to do with the realization Tkachuk might be unlike anyone the Panthers have ever seen.
“To look at all the players who have come through this organization, Pavel Bure cannot compare to him,” said Bill Lindsay, who spent seven seasons with the Panthers and is now a member of the team’s broadcast crew. “Jonathan Huberdeau — they are night and day different players. Brad Marchand is a comparable around the league somewhat in that he plays with that edge.
“He’s changed the trajectory of this franchise. To me, he is unique. Of all the players who have come through here, he’s a one-of-a-kind player.”
Markets such as South Florida face a constant crucible from the outside world when it comes to how hockey is valued. All the familiar talking points have shadowed the franchise for the majority of its existence.
Not enough fans. Not enough long-term success to create generational fandom. There are too many entertainment options in South Florida. The Panthers play in an arena that is closer to the Everglades Wildlife Management Area than Fort Lauderdale.
Yet Tkachuk’s arrival has hushed a number of those criticisms, while offering context to those who are not familiar with how sports fandom works in South Florida. It’s a market that isn’t always invested in every single game of a team’s schedule. What does enthrall South Florida, however, is when something is an event.
This is why Formula One is there. It’s why the NFL makes it a Super Bowl destination. It’s why the Orange Bowl is a College Football Playoff/New Year’s Six Bowl Game option.
Watching Tkachuk play hockey is an event. Watching Tkachuk in a press conference is an event. Watching Tkachuk on “Inside the NBA” is an event. Watching him talk about what it meant to be in People Magazine is an event.
“He has everything you’d want,” said Dave Hyde, the longtime columnist at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “He’s funny. He’s personable. He’s very much a team player. He’s a big scorer. He fights. This was a quiet, cute Panthers team a year ago when they led the league in [points in] the regular season. They didn’t have a real loud personality. Now, their leading scorer has a fire to him that you don’t have to understand hockey to understand what is going on. In that measure, he’s perfect in that he transcends hockey.”
South Florida has seen hockey stars before. Bure, Dino Ciccarrelli, Jaromir Jagr, Igor Larionov, Roberto Luongo and Joe Nieuwendyk are Hall of Famers. Joe Thornton will eventually join that list. All of them played with the Panthers.
Bure was a walking highlight reel who had two 50-goal seasons. Jagr had the mystique along with the relatable experience of being someone at a more advanced age who chose to live in South Florida. Luongo had the longevity, as 11 of his 19 seasons were in South Florida, coupled with the fact that his wife’s parents owned a pizza restaurant not far from the team’s practice facility in Coral Springs.
What makes Tkachuk different? What is it about him that has allowed him to own the conversation and made him more visible in one season than anyone else who has played there?
George Richards, who covers the Panthers for Florida Hockey Now, has been around the team for nearly 20 seasons. He explained how Bure had stardom because of his 50-goal campaigns and the fact he was dating pro tennis player Anna Kournikova. But he was in South Florida for just two full seasons. Jagr was with the team for three seasons at a stage in his career when he was a household name from his many years with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Luongo remains recognizable but Hyde points out that Luongo’s best years came when he was with the Vancouver Canucks and that the Panthers made the playoffs only once in his time with the club.
“[Tkachuk] has become the poster boy, and in December was South Florida running amok with Matthew Tkachuk? No,” Richards said. “The most casual fan didn’t know who he was and they didn’t know who he was when they traded Huberdeau for him.
“He got off on the wrong foot in South Florida because he played in Calgary. The hockey people had to tell the fans how good he is. Nobody here really watched the Calgary Flames. The thought was, ‘You traded Huberdeau?’ Nobody got past that. But since he came here, like Barkov said, it felt like he has known the guy for 10 years. Tkachuk won them over.”
Hyde, Richards and longtime South Florida radio host Joe Rose all said the love affair with Tkachuk in South Florida started at his introductory press conference. Tkachuk turned heads for his now famed line of, “I hate Edmonton, but I hate Tampa more now.”
Even so, Richards said, many fans had reservations after seeing the Panthers trade Huberdeau, a homegrown talent and 100-point scorer who never hid his affinity for South Florida.
Richards said Tkachuk did things like throw out the first pitch at a Miami Marlins game and leave an impression with the Marlins’ television broadcast crew during his in-game visit, all before training camp even started.
“He was selling it from day one,” Richards said.
But it took time for everyone to get on board. The Panthers went from dominating the NHL in the regular season in 2021-22 to looking like they could miss the playoffs this season. But then, Tkachuk produced in ways that helped the Panthers win while also putting himself in the Hart Trophy discussion as the league’s most valuable player.
He also made his mark at the All-Star Game, which was held in South Florida. Tkachuk was named the game’s MVP after scoring seven points in front of many of the fans who watch him play on a nightly basis.
“It had the Miami Vice feel and here’s Matthew Tkachuk on his golf cart being the typical Florida guy,” Richards said. “He took a lot of blame and a lot of people thought, ‘We would have been better off if we had kept Huberdeau.’ He had to overcome that. When this team was not very good, he took a lot of blame. … The All-Star Game really helped. The Panthers were getting better and with Tkachuk in that Miami Vice jersey, he was the story.”
Getting the Panthers into the Stanley Cup playoffs, finishing with the fourth 40-goal season in team history, the second-most assists (69) and second-most points (109) in team history and just the second 100-point season in team history was only the start. Leading Florida out of a 3-1 series hole to beat the Boston Bruins, who finished with the best regular-season record in NHL history, changed everything.
Tkachuk was one of the team’s most visible figures in that series, scoring three goals and six points, including the winner in overtime in Game 5 to keep the season alive.
“Last year’s team was so much fun. They could be down three goals in the third period and score seven,” Rose said. “They put up stupid numbers and they were fun. But they didn’t play that well in the playoffs. What he did in the regular season is one thing. But he comes into these playoffs. He’s talking it, walking it, talking it again and he’s got game-winning goals, setting guys up, jumping and trying to help. I think it’s those things and his personality.”
For former players such as Lindsay and Ed Jovanovski, also a member of the Panthers’ broadcast team, seeing Tkachuk and the team do this well has made them emotional for many reasons.
It reminds them of what it was like during that 1995-96 season, when the Panthers were in the Stanley Cup Final. They remember what it was like to see the entire metro area care about the team and take interest in the sport.
They also remember the difficult years of the Panthers missing the playoffs and the constant reboots that came with the oft-used theme of “this time will be different” only to have the same disappointing result.
What Tkachuk is doing is coming at an important time for the Panthers. They’ve made the playoffs in four straight seasons, starting with the qualifying round in 2020. This is the longest stretch of consecutive playoff seasons in team history which, in turn, makes it the golden age of Panthers hockey.
“It’s exciting because of what they have and where they are at age-wise, it should be a thing for where you are looking at this and you’re going to put a great product on the ice,” Jovanovski said. “The foundation is there and starting with Matthew and Barky, these guys are here long-term. A lot of their core guys are in the prime age of their career.”
Rose said that’s why the next long-term goal for Tkachuk and the Panthers is to sustain what they have done. He said South Florida still comes with the challenge of being a place that does not have an abundance of rinks. And while there are South Floridians in the NHL, Shayne Gostisbehere and Jakob Chychrun notably, there is work to be done when it comes to creating a long-term connection with the rest of the market.
Right now, the Miami Heat and the Panthers have South Florida’s undivided attention. The Heat are used to that, whereas it has been a while for the Panthers. Rose cited the importance of the Panthers having the same established success that has allowed the Heat to create their long-standing fandom and interest.
“The winning and the fact that a lot more people down here can pick up a basketball, go to a gym and see kids are playing basketball,” Rose said. “[The Panthers] got hurt by that. There wasn’t a lot of hockey being played down here before [original team owner] Wayne Huizenga, and they had that one run and that died out after the success of going to the finals. This is going to be fun to see where this goes. I am curious to see where hockey fits into the big picture of South Florida.”
The fact that Tkachuk is just 25 and is completing the first season of an eight-year contract on a team that is enjoying its longest period of sustained success creates optimism. So could Tkachuk be the biggest hockey star South Florida has ever seen?
“If he wins the Cup, he’s the biggest star that ever comes through here,” Lindsay said. “Nobody has done that. Nobody has ever done what he’s done in the playoffs.”