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Huberdeau Feels the Love at Miami-Homestead Speedway

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop /

Huberdeau Honorary Starter

Huberdeau Honorary Starter

Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau waves the green flag at the Homestead-Miami Speedway for the championship race of the NASCAR season.

  • 01:59 •

HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Jonathan Huberdeau was taken aback the first time he heard it.

"Hey, Huberdeau! Great game last night!"

Then, just a few moments later, it happened again.

"Honey, look! It's Huberdeau!"

Walking around the track at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, the Florida Panthers didn't go more than few minutes without bumping into an excited fan. He signed autographs, snapped photos and even ran into a couple that was visiting from his hometown of Saint-Jerome, Quebec.

Now, if this were at a hockey game or event, he likely wouldn't have batted an eye.

But at a NASCAR race?

"A lot of people recognized me, which was cool to see at a NASCAR race," said Huberdeau, the longest-tenured Panther now in his eighth season with the club. "You're kind of surprised by that at first, but there's a lot of Panthers fans here. It was a cool day and a good race out there."

Serving as the Honorary Starter for last weekend's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 championship race, Huberdeau waved the green flag to kick off the 267-lap race, which was eventually won by Kyle Busch, who claimed his second championship in the process.

As one of the race's pre-race dignitaries, Huberdeau also received a loud ovation when he was introduced to the sellout crowd of 46,000 prior to the start of the race. And just before the drivers headed to their cars, they each shook hands with the 26-year-old winger, much to his delight.

"It was great," Huberdeau said the event. "It was my first experience doing something like that. Having the cars come in flying was just a great experience. There was a lot of wind out there… I didn't expect to do this all today. They took care of me. Meeting all the drivers, too, was cool."

When asked if he received any tips before waving the flag, he said there was only one rule.

"They told me it didn't matter how I did it as long as I just didn't drop it," Huberdeau chuckled. "They warned me about the wind force from the fast speed, but it was still surprising. It was really cool to get to do that. They just told me before to wave the flag however I wanted."

A new fan of the sport, Huberdeau has only recently gotten into the world of stock car racing.

"My fiancée used to drive, and her brother as well," said Huberdeau, who posted on Instagram from a race in Canada over the summer. "I kind of got into it last summer and now I really like it. I keep telling [all of my teammates] that they'll like it and to get into the sport. It's incredible."

Looking at the warm reception he received at the racetrack, Huberdeau said one of the most interesting things about the outpouring of support is that the fans that approached him weren't necessarily just excited to meet him, but rather talk to him about Florida's hot start this season.

With a 5-4 overtime win over Anaheim at BB&T Center on Thursday, the Panthers became just the second team in NHL history to come back from down 4-0 to win twice in the same season. The last time they did it? Less than two weeks ago in Boston, when they won 5-4 in a shootout.

Sitting in second place in the Atlantic Division at an impressive 12-5-5, the team has won five of its last six games and is currently riding a three-game winning streak. An exciting team to watch, they own the NHL's top offense (3.68 goals per game) and fifth-ranked power play (25 percent).

And with only 22 games in the books, the buzz around the Panthers is only just beginning.

"I think they're excited for the season," said Huberdeau, who leads the team and ranks seventh in the league in scoring with 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists). "We're doing well. We're in a playoff spot. You can feel the excitement of all the fans, and it was good to see that today."

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