CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - When the Florida Panthers selected Finnish center Aleksander Barkov with the second overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, the 17-year-old never imagined he'd one day return home to play an NHL game in the place where he says it all began.
But with last month's announcement that the Panthers will travel overseas next season to play a pair of regular-season games in Finland against the Winnipeg Jets in November, Barkov, now 22, could hardly contain his excitement when he found out that he'd finally be getting his chance.
"I was dreaming, but not never thought it would it be possible to play in Finland with my own NHL team," Barkov said after a recent practice at the Panthers IceDen. "I don't know what to say about that. I'm just pretty excited."
A native of Tampere, Finland, Barkov played two seasons with his hometown team, Tappara Tampere, before jumping directly from the draft into Florida's lineup in 2013. In the midst of his fifth NHL season, he is on pace to shatter his career-best numbers, posting 19 goals and 34 assists through 54 games.
"That's where it all started," Barkov said of his impending homecoming. "That's where I started watching the NHL and playing hockey. Now, I get a chance to go there with my teammates and play an NHL game. It's going to be pretty special."
The focal point of the Finland trip will be the battle between Barkov and his fellow countryman Patrik Laine, who has scored 62 goals over two seasons since being taken second overall by the Jets in 2016.
Like Barkov, Laine grew up in Tampere, playing two seasons with Tappara before joining Winnipeg in 2016. In recent years, the two budding superstars have become close friends, spending their summers hanging out together in Finland and playing video games online during the season.
"We spend a lot of time together during the summer," Barkov said. "The last couple years we've been pretty close to each other, playing video games and talking a lot about everything. It's going to be pretty special for both us."
Laine, 19, said he and Barkov forged their friendship during last year's World Cup.
"He was definitely one of my idols when I was playing juniors and he was playing with the pro-league team," Laine said in December. "Still, he's one of my idols. He's a really good player and he's going to be one of the best centermen in the league, for sure. He already is."
While the battle between Barkov and Laine will assuredly be the focal point of the overseas trip, they likely won't be the only Finnish talents on the ice. Jets winger Joel Armia hails from Pori, Finland, while Panthers forward prospect Henrik Borgstrom, a former first-round pick who could make the jump to the NHL next season, is from Helsinki.
"It's getting bigger and bigger," Barkov said of Finland's current crop of talent. "There's a lot of young guys coming to the NHL from Finland right now. A lot of good young national teams are having a lot of success… I think the NHL's getting more and more popular in Finland."
Next season's games will also be somewhat of a homecoming for the Panthers as a whole.
Florida played two games in Helsinki against the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009, the first regular-season games every played in Finland.
The teams split the two-game series, with Finnish defenseman Ville Koistinen scoring game-winning goal in the shootout to lift the Panthers to a 4-3 victory in Game 1.
"I think it's great for our players and it's really good for hockey," Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon said of next season's trip. "It'll be a good team-bonding thing. Overall, it's a 100-percent positive for the Florida Panthers organization."
Panthers coach Bob Boughner, who was a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins when they visited Tokyo in 2000 and an assistant coach with the Blue Jackets when they played in Stockholm in 2010, said the opportunity to play a game in Finland is something he expects his players to relish.
"All great experiences and lifetime memories," Boughner said. "I think that for Barky, to be able to go back to go back to his home county [is great]. It's good for our guys. We're always looking for things to do as a team and team bonding. It doesn't get any better than that."