Aleksander Barkov lights up while talking about his first trip to the Winter Olympics.
Turning the clock all the way back to 2014, the Panthers captain recalls key moments from his time at the games in Sochi, Russia with great detail. The youngest player on Finland's roster at just 18 years old, he flashes a heartfelt smile while reminiscing about being able to converse at team dinners with players like Kimmo Timonen and Olli Jokinen, and also getting to share the ice with a legend like Teemu Selanne.
Taking home a bronze medal and a wealth of memories, he played in two games at the tournament.
"It was big," Barkov told FloridaPanthers.com. "I got to play with Selanne, Timonen, Jokinen and many, many other good players that I looked up to when I was young. To be around them in the same locker room, to see what they were doing on and off the ice, to get dinners together and talk with them was great. They'd tell stories about their time in the NHL when they were younger. A huge experience."
At those games, Barkov was a teammate of current Panthers assistant coach Tuomo Ruutu.
"He hasn't changed much, in good way," Ruutu said of Barkov's evolution into a star. "He's got the respect for the older guys, respect for the game of hockey and he works his butt off. He tries to get better every day. Nothing has changed since back then. He has all of those things on top of his talent."
Eight years after his first trip, Barkov will now be chasing gold once again at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. While the final rosters aren't expected to be revealed until sometime in January, Barkov was named to Finland's initial roster for the best-on-best international tournament last week after the NHL and NHLPA requested three provisional NHL players be named by each country taking part in the event.
Also announced for Finland were Colorado's Mikko Rantanen and Carolina's Sebastian Aho.
"It means a lot," Barkov said of returning to the Olympics. "I was really lucky in 2014 when I got to play in Sochi for a couple of games. It was an experience that I'll never forget. Right now, it's just a huge honor for me to represent Finland again. Last time we couldn't go, so you never take it for granted."
As humble as he is talented, Barkov said he honestly didn't consider his spot on the roster to be a lock.
"You never know who's going to go or if you're going to make the team," he said. "You don't think, 'OK, NHL players are going to go so I'm going.' I don't think about that. I just think that I've got to do my job first and everything will take care of itself. Obviously, the Olympics are the best players in the world."
Given his outstanding performance in recent seasons, it should come as no surprise that Barkov, who took home the Selke Trophy as the top-defensive forward in the NHL in 2020-21, was one of the first players Finland would call. Since 2017-18, he ranks 12th in the league in scoring with 294 points (108 goals, 186 assists), including racking up 58 points (26 goals, 32 assists) in 50 games this past season.
No stranger to international play, he's also previously competed for Finland at two World Junior Championships, two World Championships and the World Cup of Hockey. In 2016, he recorded nine points (three goals, six assists) in nine games to help Finland win silver at the World Championship.
"It's not a surprise that he was chosen as one of the first few players," Ruutu said. "No secret at all. Hockey is such a big thing in Finland, and he's one of the leaders right now. I think it's a good example not just for Finnish players playing pro, but for kids to see what he takes it to be a pro -- not just on the ice, but off the ice as well with how the treats people, treats fans. The way he does it, he does it right."
From being just a wide-eyed kid living his dream in 2014 to one of the centerpieces of a team hoping to win its first gold medal in men's ice hockey, Barkov believes Finland will ice a very strong lineup in 2022.
"We have great, great players here in the NHL and around the world," he said. "Team Finland is known for playing as a team, playing together and competing 100% every shift. Every situation on the ice, you give 100%. That's why Team Finland is having success. Obviously, we have great coaching and there's a great atmosphere always at the World Championships and Olympics. I'm really looking forward to that."
Far from the only big Barkov-related news to come out recently, click HERE to read about why he chose to commit to the Cats long term and sign a maximum eight-year extension to remain in South Florida.