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‘He sets the bar’: How Patric Hornqvist changed the Florida Panthers’ culture

Patric Hornqvist craned his neck up to watch the tribute video playing for him on the Florida Panthers’ video board above center ice at Amerant Bank Arena.

In the span of minutes, a hockey career that spanned a decade-and-a-half flashed before his eyes before he walked out and gave a salute to a roaring crowd.

Hornqvist officially retired from the NHL over the summer, but Friday marked the chance for him to feel the finality as the Panthers honored him with a pregame ceremony before their game against the Pittsburgh Penguins — the team with which he truly established himself as a force in the NHL before finishing his career with Florida.

After waving to the crowd, Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby flanked the 36-year-old Hornqvist as he dropped the ceremonial first puck.

“It was fun to look back,” Hornqvist said afterward with a smile. “Now, it’s over for real and I can take the next step.”

Hornqvist’s legacy can be defined by his two Stanley Cups, his 15-year NHL career, his 901 games played, 264 goals and 543 points — all after being the last player selected in the 2005 NHL Draft.

The more appropriate way, though, might be to look at what numbers don’t define.

His impact on his teammates. His unwavering dedication to his craft. The almost universal love and respect shown to him around the league — even though opponents are quick to mention how much of a pest he was to play against with how he tortured goaltenders in front of the net and wasn’t afraid to get physical with whoever got in his way.

“It’s easy to say [Hornqvist has] a different level of focus and competitiveness,” Panthers general manager Bill Zito said, “but it transcends that.”

Defenseman Gustav Forsling perhaps summed it up the best.

“He sets the bar,” Forsling said.

Former Florida Panthers player Patric Hornqvist, center, drops a ceremonial puck with Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) and Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) before an NHL hockey game at the Amerant Bank Arena on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Sunrise, Fla.
Former Florida Panthers player Patric Hornqvist, center, drops a ceremonial puck with Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) and Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) before an NHL hockey game at the Amerant Bank Arena on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Sunrise, Fla.

It’s one of the reasons Zito did what he had to do to trade for Hornqvist on Sept. 24, 2020 — Zito’s first acquisition as the Panthers’ general manager. Zito had to convince Hornqvist to waive his no-trade clause for the deal to go through. The general manager’s message to the player was simple in its essence: There are good players, the situation is ripe for success and you’re going to play a big role both on the ice and in establishing a culture reset.

“I just tried to be myself, come here and obviously bring the competitive part of my game and my personality” Hornqvist said. “I think that shared off to the other guys.”

And it’s one of the reasons Zito wanted Hornqvist to stay with the organization when it became apparent his playing career was going to come to an end last season after a final bout with concussions proved too much to overcome.

Not long after his retirement became official, Hornqvist joined the Panthers’ hockey operations department as a scouting and development consultant this offseason.

“Patric is the kind of person whom you wanted to create a unique solution to a problem,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “He was pretty sure early on [last season] that he wasn’t coming back, but he was not 100 percent. He earned the right to take his time. What do you do with that? He was out there with the guys like he might come back and he was more sure he wasn’t coming back. He is a guy you be creative with to keep him around your group.’’

Florida Panthers right wing Patric Hornqvist (70) takes a photo with fan Noah Grizzle, 11, before the start of an NHL game against the Philadelphia Flyers at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida, on Wednesday, October 19, 2022.
Florida Panthers right wing Patric Hornqvist (70) takes a photo with fan Noah Grizzle, 11, before the start of an NHL game against the Philadelphia Flyers at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida, on Wednesday, October 19, 2022.

In his role, Hornqvist has dabbled into a little bit of everything the front office has to offer. In addition to work with the scouting and player development departments, he has moonlighted as an extra hand for the Panthers’ coaching staff, working with injured players.

And like with everything else during his hockey career, he is attacking this job with everything he has.

“He forces you to be better,” Zito said. “He forces all of us to be better at what we do. ... You look in the mirror, and you’re like ‘Am I working hard enough in the scouting meeting? Am I being a good enough parent? Did I give as much to whatever it is I’m doing to the Panthers as that guy did? And you’re probably going to fall short, but it’s that effort, right? And that might be the most valuable part of what he does. He leaves nothing. There’s nothing left in anything that he does.”

Maurice credited Hornqvist as a pivotal factor in getting top players like Sam Bennett, Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour ready for game action when they were sidelined early in the season.

“He’s one of the most intense hockey players I’ve ever played with,” Bennett said. “He brings that intensity when he’s coaching as well. It’s nice having someone that you played with and you’re comfortable with. You can talk to him and tell him what kind of drills you need. He understands that. He’s not afraid to work as hard and that’s definitely what we need.”

Florida Panthers players Sergei Bobrovsky (72) and Patric Hornqvist (70) celebrate their 5-3 win over the Washington Capitals during Game 5 of a first round NHL Stanley Cup series at FLA Live Arena on Wednesday, May 11, 2022 in Sunrise, Fl.
Florida Panthers players Sergei Bobrovsky (72) and Patric Hornqvist (70) celebrate their 5-3 win over the Washington Capitals during Game 5 of a first round NHL Stanley Cup series at FLA Live Arena on Wednesday, May 11, 2022 in Sunrise, Fl.

While Hornqvist only played three seasons with Florida, his imprint on the Panthers is undeniable. Some testimonials:

Defenseman Aaron Ekblad: “The culture he brings to the ice every day and into the room. Leadership is his biggest thing, but his ability to play the game was also top tier.”

Forward Ryan Lomberg: “I remember my first summer here — it was three months before the season and it was like training camp practices. He was the one pushing the pace and yelling at guys, saying ‘Faster! harder!’ That’s kind of who he is. He’s never changed. That’s a big reason why he’s a champion. We were lucky to have him here for a couple of years. And he’s still part of it. I think some of the things that he taught us as a group still live on and it’s part of why we have success.”

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky: ”He was great for me. Even last year for [the second] half of the season, he was my shooter [at practice]. He would be there for me every day, every morning. It didn’t matter if the team was there or not to help me get prepared for the game. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and his career. It was so hard to play against him and I was so happy when he got to our side.”

Forsling: “When I got here, I got a text from him right away and he gave me a call and just helped me a lot. I got picked up off waivers, and he really helped me gain confidence and just everything around here just helped me in the team. ... That’s why we want to keep him around. He’s been unreal and just getting guys in game shape. He’s just been perfect for us.”

“He is visible here,”Maurice said. “It is important for the players here to see a player who gave a lot and was a big part of the team and the community. He wasn’t here 15 years, but he is still with the organization and being treated with an awful lot of respect — all earned. As a player, when your career comes to an end, for some of them, it’s very quiet. You’re not part of it anymore. Patric did it the right way and worked really hard, was committed to this team and the organization. The relationship continues and he is still part of the team.”