Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov was a good soccer player growing up, and an even better tennis player, with powerful groundstrokes, a decent serve, and an older brother who spent a brief time on the pro tour. But his true love was hockey, which should come as no surprise.
Barkov, the 22-year-old Florida Panther headed to the NHL All-Star Game, was born in Tampere, Finland, site of the first ice hockey match in Finnish history, home of the Finnish Ice Hockey Museum and the Hakametsa Arena, the first ice hockey arena built in Finland.
As if that weren’t enough to lure “Barky” to the ice, his father Alexander (with an x) was a three-time Soviet IIHF World Championship player in the 1990s and spent the last 10 seasons of his career playing for Tappara Tempere in the Finnish league.
Barkov was nine years old when his father retired in 2004, and he has vivid memories of going to see him play. He inherited his father’s size (both Barkovs are 6-3), vision on the ice, and work ethic.
“When I was in preschool, my dad would pick me up from school and take me to the rink, where his team had an optional afternoon skating session,” Barkov said. “He always went to the optional workouts. I would sit with the other players’ kids and watch him on the ice, and he took me in the locker room to meet his teammates. So, professional hockey has always been part of my life, and I always loved it.”
The elder Barkov now coaches the Chinese Kunlun Red Star junior team in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League. He also coaches his son from afar, with the help of Panther game livestreams and What’s App.
“My father taught me everything I know, and he is still teaching me,” said Barkov, who has 14 goals and 26 assists (40 points) through 42 games this season. “He watches every game and sends me texts about what I did well, what I can do better. He knows my game very well, and I like hearing his advice.”
Barkov’s pedigree and hockey IQ are among the reasons he was a surprise second overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. He was 18 years old at the time. No Finnish skater had ever been drafted higher (goalie Kari Lehtonen was also taken No. 2 in 2002).
Colorado chose Nathan MacKinnon with the first overall pick that year, leaving the Panthers with the option of taking defenseman Seth Jones, center Jonathan Drouin, or Barkov.
Most experts figured Jones would be the No 2 pick, but Florida general manager Dale Tallon went with Barkov, who speaks English, Russian and Finnish, and exuded confidence during his pre-draft interview. Four years later, he is the anchor of the Panthers’ top line and has become the face of the franchise.
“He’s big, strong, creative and can play in all three zones,” Tallon said when they drafted Barkov. “He makes other players around him better. He has great vision, great hands. He’s a rare commodity, a big center with skill. He fits into what we already have coming in size and speed. He gives us real strength up the middle.”
The Panthers’ international scouts were especially impressed with Barkov because he always played up a level through his junior career. He was the youngest-ever player in the Finnish Elite League at 16, and was on Finland’s bronze-medal winning 2014 Olympic team in Sochi at 18. Before his 18th birthday, he had scored 28 goals with 36 assists in 85 games over two seasons with Tappara of Finland’s Elite League
Tallon praised scout Jari Kekalainen for unearthing great Finnish talent. “We like what they bring to the table,” Tallon said. “They play hard, they are passionate, they play a North American-style game, and they also have a lot of skill and a desire to play in the NHL.”
Sasha Barkov has 14 goals and 26 assists (40 points) through 42 games this season.
Barkov wasted no time proving the Panthers made a good decision. He scored a critical goal in his NHL debut as the Panthers beat Dallas 4-2 on the road. That goal tied the game 2-2 in the third period. He was 18 years and 31 days old at the time, the youngest player to score an NHL goal in 70 years.
The biggest adjustment Barkov had to make when he joined the Panthers was getting accustomed to the tropical climate.
“The weather and nature here are very different from Finland,” Barkov said. “In Finland, after practice and games, you go outside and it is gray, snowstorms, darkness, rain, really cold. Here, you walk outside and you need sunglasses. The sun is shining. It is so relaxing, almost like paradise. I got used to it pretty quick.”
Although he loves the beach, he said he hasn’t had much time to enjoy it. “I’m the whitest guy on the team,” he joked. “I could use a sun tan. Maybe after this season I’ll work on that.”
I remember watching the NHL All-Star Game from Finland, seeing all the big-name players, so it is a dream come true to be chosen to be part of that. I plan to enjoy it very much.
Barkov spends more time on the ice than any other NHL forward this season, with an average of 22:30 per game — an increase of three minutes from last season. A talented special team player, Barkov averages 3:21 on the power play, 1:56 on the penalty kill, and has a league-high four shorthanded goals this season. He is also shooting more, after much urging from coaches. The extra boost of energy, he said, comes from being in better shape. He was having back trouble toward the end of last season, so he spent the summer conditioning and working on strengthening his core.
The result? “I am more stable on the ice, quicker and lighter.”
He said he felt the difference right away.
“When you change your body, it takes a little while to get used to it,” Barkov said. “I’m still as strong as before, but I did more running and less weight lifting in the off-season. I had to change things to protect my back, and it helped my game.”
Barkov will compete for the Atlantic Division team at the 2018 NHL All-Star game in Tampa on Jan. 28. He will also participate in the All-Star Skills Competition on Jan. 27. He found out he was selected while getting a haircut. Tallon called him with the news.
“I remember watching the NHL All-Star Game from Finland, seeing all the big-name players, so it is a dream come true to be chosen to be part of that,” Barkov said. “I plan to enjoy it very much.”
Although he is on the ice more than any NHL forward, Barkov is not as well-known as many of the league’s stars, partly because the Panthers rank fourth from the bottom in attendance and have been in just one playoff round in four years. Last season, Oilers coach Todd McClellan called Barkov “A pretty well-kept secret.”
The All-Star Game surely will raise Barkov’s profile, but fame has never been his goal.
“My goal is for us to make the playoffs,” he said.