CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Olli Jokinen's heart has always been in South Florida.
Jokinen, who spent seven seasons in Florida and four of them serving as team captain, signed an honorary contract to officially retire as a Panther on Tuesday, giving one of the franchise's all-time greats a fitting end to what was certainly a formidable career.
"My heart has always been with the Panthers organization and now I feel like my career has come full circle," Jokinen said. "I am extremely grateful that I had the chance to play hockey in South Florida and help the sport grow.
"I want to thank my family - my wife Katerina and my daughters Alexandra, Emma and Keira - and all of the fans, teammates, coaches and staff who have supported me throughout my career."
Originally selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the first round (third overall) of the 1997 NHL Draft, Jokinen was acquired by the Panthers along with goaltender Roberto Luongo from the New York Islanders on June 24, 2000 in exchange for forwards Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha.
"I remember that like it was yesterday," Jokinen said of the trade. "There were rumblings at the trade deadline that I might be moving. The Panthers were in a playoff spot at the time and I thought I was going to get traded here. It happened at the draft and the first thing I did was look at the roster.
"It was a really, really good team that I joined, being able to play alongside guys like Scott Mellanby, Viktor Kozlov, Igor Larionov and Pavel Bure. It was very easy to step in. Those guys made me feel like a part of the team right away."
After arriving to the Panthers, Jokinen evolved from a 20-point player into one of the league's top offensive threats, accumulating a franchise record 419 points (188-231-419) in 567 games, while also recording the most game-winning goals (36), overtime goals (10), power play points (153) and shots (1,837) in Florida's history.
"I think I was at a crossroads during my fourth year in the league," said Jokinen, who tallied 321 goals and 750 points over his 17 seasons in the NHL. "My second year with Florida, being a high draft pick and coming into the league with high expectations, things weren't going my way. It was my third team in four years and I was at a point where it had to happen now or I was going to go back to Europe to find my game.
"When Mike Keenan became head coach, he told me that I was going to play on the top two lines for the rest of the year and if he didn't like what he saw he told me I could go back to Europe. He gave the opportunity to play those top minutes. It look longer than I thought to become an impact player, but everything worked out in the end."
In 2003, Jokinen was named the fifth captain in Panthers history.
"It was a great honor," said Jokinen, who wore the "C" from 2003-08. "It's something I can be proud of. The team was in a transition mode at the time, we had a lot of young players and there were a lot of changes year after year. I was an assistant captain the two previous seasons, so it was kind of a natural move."
A native of Kuopio, Finland, Jokinen also took pride in competing for the Finnish national team on numerous occasions throughout his career, including 10 IIHF World Championships and four Olympics, recording 63 points (34-29-63) in 110 appearances on the international stage.
"I think he's one of the all-time best players in Finland," said Panthers forward Jussi Jokinen, who won a silver medal with Olli at the 2006 Olympics in Torino. "He's had an unbelievable career. I was really lucky to play on the same team and same line as him at the Olympics and World Championships.
"I think we had great chemistry on the ice -- him, Ville Peltonen, who's another fellow Panther, and me, we had a really good line. For sure, he's one of the guys that I was watching when I grew up and I was lucky to play on the same team as him."
With his playing days now behind him, Jokinen won't be stepping away from the ice anytime soon, as the 38-year-old now plans to turn his attention to growing the game of hockey in South Florida through year-round coaching, clinics and camps.
"The future of youth hockey is good," Jokinen said. " With all of the youth hockey organizations here, there's really good awareness of what the kids need now. A lot of the youth programs are improving and there's definitely a lot more youth hockey players now than there were when I was here 10 years ago.
"The main reason for that is that the Panthers are still here and doing good. The team has a bright future, which is going to bring more local kids to the sport. As a former player, coaching is something that's been in the back of my head for four or five years now. These kids are willing to learn and always have a smile on their face."
The Panthers will honor Jokinen's legacy during the second period of Tuesday's game against the New York Rangers at 7:30 p.m. ET at the BB&T Center.