Even without playing, Cup winner Patric Hornqvist still has big role for Panthers – Metro US

Even without playing, Cup winner Patric Hornqvist still has big role for Panthers

Panthers Hornqvist Hockey
FILE – Arizona Coyotes goaltender Karel Vejmelka (70) makes a save on a shot by Florida Panthers right wing Patric Hornqvist, right, during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Tempe, Ariz., Nov. 1, 2022. Hornqvist will not play in the Stanley Cup Final for the Florida Panthers because of a December concussion, but the team insists he is still a big part of their success. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Patric Hornqvist was one of the last Florida Panthers players to leave the team’s locker room on Sunday, which surprises none of his teammates.

He’s not playing yet still working as hard as anyone.

The two-time Stanley Cup winner has a chance to get his name on hockey’s biggest prize for a third time, with the Panthers set to start the final next weekend at either Vegas or Dallas. Hornqvist has not played since a concussion knocked him from a game against Seattle on Dec. 3, and he won’t play in the championship series.

“I feel great,” Hornqvist said. “This is so much fun. To see the boys playing this hard, on that consistent basis for the last 15 games, it makes me so happy. I’m so happy for them and to be through this kind of run again, for me, it’s great. This is what you live for as a player and as a fan and all that. For me to still be around them on a day-to-day basis, it makes my life great.”

He hasn’t scored since getting the game winner on opening night against the New York Islanders. He hasn’t had a point on any of Florida’s last 256 goals, hasn’t dressed for any of the Panthers’ last 74 games, and yet everyone in the locker room says he’s a big reason why they’re headed to the Stanley Cup Final.

“He’s definitely the guy who you want to talk to if you need to know anything about a situation,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He always knows what to do, especially now, because he’s won it twice.”

At 36 years old and in his 15th NHL season, Hornqvist — who won his Cups with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017 — surely wasn’t envisioning his year to go this way. He hasn’t officially retired; he said there will be a conversation with the Panthers about the future when the season ends.

But there was just no willingness on the team’s part to potentially expose him to another head injury this season.

“We all knew when he got to post-concussion that the risk then of another one was way too high,” coach Paul Maurice said. “The potential cost for the rest of his life was just way too high. You find with players — certainly not the extreme point when their careers possibly have come to an end — but with a major injury they always go through some sort of depression. You just didn’t see that with him. He wasn’t relieved, he wasn’t happy that it was over, but he knew that at that point that it was over.”

Over on game nights, anyway.

He hasn’t hung up the skates quite yet — and still has a very important role on the ice.

The Panthers have dealt with a ton of injuries this season and the medical team always has to determine when a player is ready to return. This season, there’s been an extra test: that player has to survive a skating session with Hornqvist.

“If you can skate with him, you’re good,” Maurice said. “He’s half-doctor, half-coach, certainly the bar setter as far as the ability to come back and play.”

Most of the Panthers have never played for the Cup, much less won one. They rely on Hornqvist’s expertise. He goes up to some players privately, sometimes speaks to the whole group, is still present in meetings and is often among the first person to greet everyone after wins.

“There’s never going to be another Horny,” Barkov said. “He just means a lot to our team, his work ethic and how professional he is about everything in hockey.”

Maurice is convinced that Hornqvist will be a hockey lifer. He thinks he could coach or work in a front office, become a scout or do player development. He raves about his understanding of every nuance of the game and how he can process it all in real time.

Hornqvist knows all that. But for now, talk of the future can wait. He’s still a player, his team is still playing, the Stanley Cup Final awaits — and he has a job to do.

“All we know is I’m not going to play more this year,” Hornqvist said. “I will sit down with my family and (Panthers GM Bill Zito) and Paul after the season and see what happens. That’s not the focus right now. The focus right now is to make sure I can help these guys to be in the best-prepared mode and mindset for these last, at most, seven games.”

AP NHL Playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports