Sunny days: Panthers’ Tkachuk loving Florida vibes as he gears up to face Flames

Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk scores an empty-net goal against the Florida Panthers during the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Elmont, N.Y. The Panthers won 3-1. (Adam Hunger/AP)

TAMPA – Asked how well he’s been able to acclimate to south Florida, Matthew Tkachuk had a declaration to make.

“I haven’t worn shoes yet to practice,” said the former Flame, who swapped his Sorels for sandals after triggering a southern migration this summer via the NHL’s first sign-and-trade deal.

“I couldn’t be happier. I’ve absolutely loved my time here, more than I could ever have imagined.

“I had countless great times in Calgary too, but life down here has been pretty great so far.”

The Panthers hockey community has certainly wrapped its arms around its prized acquisition, but those in his Las Olas neighbourhood in Fort Lauderdale have welcomed him in a uniquely tropical way.

“One of the first purchases I made when I got here was a golf cart, because everything is so close around me — it’s my go-to ride,” explained Tkachuk, who insists the only time he uses his car is to drive 20 minutes to the rink.

“There’s a few little obnoxious things about it, like I know it can light up, change colours or whatever, but I don’t really use that a lot.

“The grocery store, restaurants, the beach, it’s all just a golf cart distance away.

“A lot of people have golf carts and some people compare it to the ‘Jeep wave.’ Like, if you have a Jeep, you wave to other people in Jeeps only.

“It’s the same in the golf cart. If you have a golf cart it’s just an automatic that you wave or give a little salute to the other people in golf carts.

“They’re my golf cart crew. It’s pretty hilarious.”

Flames fans still stuck on wondering why a single, 24-year-old athlete would want to relocate to a tax haven where palm trees, pina coladas, Pinnacles and pools (yes, he has one of those too) are as common as golf cart gangs, may finally have their answer.

Was he keen on escaping the frozen fishbowl of a Canadian market, or a coach who is notoriously demanding?

It’s easy to speculate, especially after a recent interview on Spittin’ Chiclets where a few off-hand comments by Tkachuk suggest he wasn’t keen on playing for Darryl Sutter, who immediately slashed the forward’s ice time upon arrival.

Despite being known as one of hockey’s chief antagonists, Tkachuk isn’t interested in thickening that plot.

“I’m a player, I would never worry or, quite frankly, care about our relationship,” said Tkachuk, who will face his former club for the first time Saturday in Sunrise, Fla.

“I’m out there to win games and be the best teammate and play for my teammates. Those are the guys you battle with every night and those are the guys I care about.

“Maybe at the start I wasn’t playing good and probably didn’t deserve as much (ice time). I wouldn’t read too much into that.”

Regardless of their Christmas card status, Tkachuk recognizes he certainly benefited under Sutter, as he switched the left winger to the right side where he shattered career highs with 42 goals and 104 points as part of the NHL’s most dominant line alongside Elias Lindholm and Johnny Gaudreau.

Sutter’s influence helped play a role in Tkachuk cashing in on an eight-year, $76 million US deal.

That’s a lot of golf carts.

“We had some success last year, he got some good things out of us as players,” agreed Tkachuk.

“I definitely had a good year under him last year. The year before I did not, and our team did not.”

“More importantly, I just think I was surrounded by great players and I was fortunate to play with great players. I think when you’re on a team that does well, things seem to go smoothly.”

So, what did he read into Sutter’s training camp shot?

You know, when the coach responded to being asked the difference between top line replacement Tyler Toffoli and Tkachuk by saying, “One guy’s won Stanley Cups, been a big part of long playoff runs.”

“I don’t really read anything into it — I’m sure other people can spend their time doing that, but I don’t waste my time doing that,” said a decidedly chill Tkachuk from his Florida home.

“He’s probably just sticking up for the guy who’s on his team. He’s not going to say the guy on his team isn’t better. I don’t think any coach would do that.”

With five goals and 20 points in 14 games as a Panther, it’s clear Tkachuk has had no trouble moving forward with his new lot in life.

Playing largely on a line with Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe, the rugged winger has had a good start, save for a two-game suspension for poking Jonathan Quick in the eye.

The transition hasn’t been quite as smooth just yet for Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar, who were traded to Calgary for Tkachuk as part of the blockbuster deal that also landed the Flames Cole Schwindt and a first-rounder.

Tkachuk insists he hasn’t paid any attention to the fact the duo has combined for just two goals and nine assists as they adjust to life in a world they couldn’t have fathomed being in before Tkachuk’s decision not to re-sign in Calgary kickstarted the trade.

“God no, that’s the last thing I care about,” he said.

“I’ve got enough on my plate down here. I do not care at all about anybody’s personal stuff. I have completely moved on from that.

“I mean, maybe my younger-self would worry a little about that and try to get myself going, but that is the least of my concerns right now. My mindset is a lot different from that.”

Tkachuk said his decision not to re-sign in Calgary had nothing to do with Gaudreau’s departure and was set in motion, unbeknownst to him, when he signed a three-year bridge deal in 2019 that allowed him to re-evaluate this summer.

“There wasn’t one moment, but I just think after talking to other teams before unrestricted free agency, and hearing about Florida more, that’s when I knew,” said Tkachuk, who is content with his play as a Panther thus far.

“Some parts of my game have been good, like I’ve been able to gel quickly with my teammates and create chemistry. But I’ve got another level to get to and I think that can translate into more wins for our team.”

That’s his focus Saturday afternoon — winning.

“I’m definitely going to want a win Saturday and I know they’ll want the same thing — it will be revved up,” said Tkachuk, who promises he won’t change a thing about his approach or style against teammates he spent six years with.

“I just don’t really know what to expect.

“I haven’t watched a lot of Calgary or paid too much attention. The games are on much later out there and I go to bed early and don’t have a chance to watch them, let alone pay attention to them.

“But I obviously love the sport I play and I’m very interested and I see the standings and results.

“Both teams, and both sets of guys that exchanged teams, should be excited for it.”

But first, he hopes to get together with a bunch of ’em Friday night.

“I loved my time in Calgary. So many great guys and we did a lot together,” he said.

“I’m definitely trying to get together with most of the guys that I played with.

“Might just have them over.”

To see that fancy golf cart.

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