By Ryan Dixon in Boca Raton, Fla.
By Ryan Dixon in Boca Raton, Fla.
Getting to know one of the NHL's best, and most underappreciated, two-way players — Florida Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov — over some truly unreal sea bass.

Aleksander Barkov eased up on the chicken wings in recent times, so something has to fill the void. Wings are a bone-suckin’ way of life where he comes from, even for the slew of professional hockey players who’ve sprung from the Finnish city of Tampere. “Every chicken wing place is packed all the time,” Barkov says.

The 23-year old may be increasingly conscious of what he puts in his body, but his appetite remains voracious. Sushigo in Boca Raton, Fla. is about 30 minutes from the end of its lunch hours, so as soon as the server reaches the table Barkov — clad in blue a t-shirt and shorts, fresh off the penultimate practice before his Florida Panthers start their season — begins ordering with conviction. A number of enticing items have already arrived when Barkov, speaking from experience, starts pumping the main event. “[The] sea bass is going to be unreal,” he says. “It’s coming.”

As plates hit the table, they pile up not just because of the order’s size, but also due to the fact Barkov has been a little too preoccupied to chew all that much, discussing his hockey-heavy upbringing and current life as go-to guy for the Panthers. Talking — especially in his third language — might not be the freshly minted captain’s preferred activity, but he’s getting by just fine. And, really, why waste words when you have such pure goals? “Whenever the puck is in our zone, I try to be really good there,” he says. “Whenever the puck is in the offensive zone, I try to be really good there.”

“I don’t really compare myself to anybody, but of course when somebody compares me to the NHL’s best, it sounds pretty crazy.”

Locating the best of the best in sprawling South Florida can require a little recalibration of expectations. You may not anticipate finding brilliance in a strip plaza, but Boca’s culinary hotspots aren’t necessarily tagged by barn board or exposed brick. Instead, a first-class fish joint is nestled unpretentiously in the same complex as New York Grilled Cheese and uBreakiFix iPhone Repair. Along the same lines, the fact Florida is home to one of the very best players in hockey still catches some off-guard. However, anyone paying close attention knows Barkov’s multi-faceted play has been speaking for itself since he entered the league five years ago. His continued excellence will only make it clearer that he’s among the established elite when it comes to two-way play. “I don’t really compare myself to anybody, but of course when somebody compares me to [the NHL’s best players], it sounds pretty crazy,” he says. “I’m really happy that somebody notices my work.”

Born to Russian parents in Finland, Barkov has been more than one thing his entire life. Now, in his new role as lead cat on the Panthers, he’ll have to tap a little deeper into his ability to bridge worlds.

Barkov has a pretty straightforward goal: Be good on both ends of the ice.

Barkov is a big fan of Boca Raton. That may sound like a no-brainer to people who own snow shovels, but it’s worth noting that the majority of Florida’s players — especially the ones Barkov’s age — reside in the more energetic coastal town of Fort Lauderdale. Barkov landed in sleepier Boca because, when he first came to the Panthers in 2013, that’s where teammates Sean Bergenheim and Dmitry Kulikov — a Finn and Russian, respectively — lived. Five years on, Boca is officially home.

Barkov chuckles thinking back to the time when he had no reference points for the Panthers or the region they play in beyond “Miami.” Boca is actually about an 80-kilometre drive up the Atlantic coast from South Beach and all its art deco. Barkov is completely at peace here, cruising in his white Mercedes SUV or hopping on a bike if he’s just going around the block to Starbucks. He’s not a huge beach guy, partially because no one in the Panthers organization seems to want to reinforce old notions about the sunny life being a little too easy to enjoy down here. “I don’t want to get too red; our GM doesn’t like that,” Barkov says with a smile. He likes how friendly his fellow residents are and, just in the last couple months, he’s started to get recognized a bit more. If he goes to the mall now, there’s a decent chance he’ll be made by a person or two. “Maybe it has something to do with the captaincy,” he theorizes.

One group that is almost certainly oblivious to the remarkable nature of Barkov’s work life are the pick-up basketball players who shake and shoot on the outdoor court near his house. Barkov grew up playing tennis, but never tried roundball before landing in North America. As such, he limits himself to shooting baskets on his own or a little one-on-one with appropriate opponents, understanding that he’s just not ready for actual game action yet. “Maybe a couple more years and I can play with those local Kyrie Irvings,” he says.

When it comes to the ice, however, it’s been a long time since Barkov was overmatched. At nine years old in 2004, his form caught the attention of NHLer Ville Nieminen on what the latter is quite sure was a Monday evening in Tampere. When Nieminen was 17, he appeared in his first top-league games for Tappara in the Finnish Liiga. One morning, teammate Alexander Barkov told Nieminen he was off to the hospital because his wife had given birth to a son. Nearly a decade later, that boy was giving Nieminen a serious case of déjà vu. The moves all seemed familiar, only now they were being presented in miniature. Eventually, the little puck whiz spoke up. “He said, ‘You know my dad,’” Nieminen recalls. “I said ‘Who’s your dad?’ ‘Sasha is my dad.’”

“He’s the best student of the game I’ve ever seen.”

An NHLer bumping into a future second-overall pick at an outdoor rink couldn’t be more Tampere. The hockey-obsessed city with a population of roughly 250,000 supports two pro teams and is almost like Finland’s version of Ornskoldsvik, the town in northern Sweden that has spawned greats like Peter Forsberg, the Sedins and Victor Hedman. Tampere might not be on that level just yet, but it was the launching pad for guys like Teppo Numminen, Jyrki Lumme, Barkov and Patrik Laine. It’s where Barkov’s father — both Alexander and Aleksander go by “Sasha,” a common short form — landed at 29 years old after a long career in Russia. “Probably one of the best places on earth growing up as a hockey player,” says Barkov, who will no doubt be feted right alongside good buddy Laine when the Panthers and Winnipeg Jets play two games in Helsinki on Thursday and Friday. “It helped me a lot that my dad played hockey. I got to go to every game, watch him play and be in a professional team’s locker room, skating with them. Outdoor hockey with friends, having so much fun; everything was about hockey.”

That was especially the case once the junior Barkov joined Tappara in 2011–12, playing 32 games in Finland’s best league as a 16-year-old. The following year, he probably made Nieminen feel really old when the two became linemates. Nieminen says the senior Barkov was a huge influence on him when they skated together, so he did what he could to mentor the second Sasha. Even from the time Barkov was 14 years old, Nieminen knew where things were headed. “Everything looked professional,” he says. “All his moves, hockey IQ. He’s the best student of the game I’ve ever seen.”

Having a dad who cut his teeth playing in the Soviet Union decades before the Iron Curtain crumbled almost certainly helped mould Barkov into the perfectly rounded player we see today. The Soviets, upon picking up hockey, borrowed heavily from soccer, making centre — the position played by both Sr. and Jr. — the responsibility laden on-ice equivalent of the centre mid-fielder. Barkov completely fits that model. In addition to routing so much of the action, he possesses the high-end skill stereotypically associated with the Russians: His shootout goals alone are as carefully crafted and beautifully executed as the delightful creations at Sushigo. And while he earned a Lady Byng nod for his gentlemanly play last season, no stitch of his 213-lb. frame goes to waste thanks to a tenacious approach worthy of any ‘feisty Finn’ label. “[His dad] was able to coach a little bit in the Russian way and a little bit in the Finnish way,” says Nieminen. “And he took the best parts of both cultures.”

It’s clear Barkov is proud of all aspects of his heritage, though he’s likely conditioned to stumping for the Russian part since that’s not the country he grew up in. He spoke Russian at home with his parents and older brother. Then, as he says, he’d walk out the front door and be Finnish. Like most European countries that touch boundaries, Finland and Russia have some ugly history and Barkov says he’s heard Finns take shots at their world power of a neighbour. “I’m Russian, but I’m not as Russian [as people who lived there] and same thing with Finnish guys,” Barkov says. “So, I’m kinda in the middle. I grew up in Finland and have a Finnish mentality, but all my family and the blood and everything is Russian. Actually, it’s hard to say which one I am, so I say I’m both.”

As Barkov reflects on this, a server continues to trot out more food and re-fill tea cups. Barkov often sets his chopsticks down while chatting, conscious to devote his full attention to questions. When he’s encouraged, almost in the style of an Italian grandmother, to eat, he scoops his chopsticks with his left hand and goes to work. Called out as a southpaw, he says he writes left, shoots left, but actually throws with his right hand. “So, I’m in the middle here, too.”

“His dad was able to coach a little bit in the Russian way and a little bit in the Finnish way,” says Nieminen. “And he took the best parts of both cultures.”

If Barkov played in a different market, one where hockey was first-tab news, the hollowed cucumber filled with spicy salmon rather than tuna might become the ‘Barkie Special’ at Sushigo in honour of his personalized substitution. As it stands, the Panthers struggle to crack the menu for South Floridians. The team has infamously not done itself any favours by failing to win a post-season round since a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1996. Florida won its division in Barkov’s third season, but that playoff showing was just the third time the Cats have made the big dance in the past 18 seasons. It’s a trend Barkov is determined to explode. “Just to be around the team and try to win something big is why we do this,” he says.

There was genuine optimism surrounding the club this October thanks to a dynamite young core and the surge Florida finished with last year, when it posted the seventh-best record in the NHL from Jan. 1 to the end of the campaign. But 32 minutes into this season, Panther Frank Vatrano fell on goalie Roberto Luongo’s knee and the Cats have basically been getting league-worst goaltending from James Reimer and Michael Hutchinson since. Still, No. 16 is doing all he can to steady the ship, operating at point-per-game levels and, of course, doing the little things that make informed opponents marvel. “He’s able to make plays from both sides of his stick, where a lot of guys might take the extra second to put [the puck] on their forehand,” says a rival team’s assistant coach. “I think he can make as threatening offensive plays on his backhand [as much as] his forehand.”

“He’s a creative mind. He just comes up with stuff nobody else really thinks of.”

Barkov, who missed significant chunks of time due to injury during three of his first four seasons, scored at a rate of 0.98 points-per-game last year across 79 contests. Only five players his age or younger bested that mark and none of them finished fourth in Selke voting for the league’s best defensive forward. “If I was to compare him to somebody, it would be Anze Kopitar,” says Florida’s Vincent Trocheck, referring to the lauded L.A. Kings centre who won his second Selke last summer. “But I think Barkie just has that extra talent, that extra skill when it comes to what he can do with the puck.”

Barkov was 18 years and 31 days old when he scored his first NHL goal, making him the youngest player to notch one in the league since World War II. He’s also the most junior player to tally in Finland’s top league and the World Junior Championship. The biggest endorsement of his talent, though, may come from the scrunched, “are you insane?” look on Trocheck’s face when the Panthers’ No. 2 pivot is asked what, as someone who plays the same position and is counted on heavily to contribute, he’s attempted to take from the big guy’s game. “I would never try and do anything he’s doing,” Trocheck says, sounding way more straight-shooter than falsely modest. “He’s got a lot of skill, that guy, so I try to stick to my own game. He’s a creative mind, he does his own thing out there. He just comes up with stuff nobody else really thinks of.”

Barkov's started to get noticed in his Boca neighbourhood in the last couple months. "Maybe it has something to do with the captaincy,” he says.

The notion he might replace heart-and-soul fourth-liner Derek MacKenzie as captain was first floated to Barkov during exits meetings last spring, after the Panthers agonizingly missed the playoffs by one point. Management indicated it was considering a change and when Barkov returned from the off-season, he officially became bearer of the ‘C.’ It’s a dream come true, he says, to hold that rank with an NHL club and he’s certainly been exposed to players who set a high standard along the way. At 18, Barkov was an Olympic teammate of legendary Finn Teemu Selanne and he spent two-plus years in Florida with one of hockey’s all-time treasures, Jaromir Jagr. He stares down at the Chilean Sea Bass Bombs and Awesome Rolls for a second before shaking his head at the pinch-me moments that have coloured his life. “All of my idols growing up, I’ve played with them,” he says. “I’m really lucky to be able to do that. You sit with them in the same room, look at them and [it’s] like, ‘What’s going on? It’s my dream or what?’”

Barkov jests that all being captain really means is, “I have to open my mouth sometimes.” Nieminen says Sasha Sr. is the talker in the family, so there’s at least one thing father didn’t pass along to son. The fact Barkov cracks wise about his quiet ways, though, is in line with a defining characteristic — knowing how to pick your spots, both with the puck and one-liners. “Yeah, that’s exactly it,” says Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman and fellow Finn Olli Maatta. “Definitely not the loudest guy it the room, but when you get to know him he has almost like a sneaky sense of humour.”

Though not a native himself, Maatta also confirms the whole wing thing in Tampere is no joke. “Home of hockey and chicken wings,” Nieminen boasts, adding that nothing found in North America can match the recipes in his hometown. “I agree with him,” Barkov says.

While going out with a crew for any kind of meal is something that Barkov enjoys, he’s also fond of his alone time. In Finland, he might find it in the sauna at his cottage after a solid day of training. In Florida, maybe some video games and leftovers after practice. His place is less than a five-minute drive from Sushigo and with the dishes starting to clear, Barkov is free to take his usual route home, the season now just 48 hours away. “I sleep really well after the games,” he says.

Makes sense.

Design by Drew Lesiuczok
Edited by Evan Rosser

Photo Credits

Getty (2); Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI/Getty Images; Mark Humphrey/AP Photo; Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images.