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Former Calgary Flames star Matthew Tkachuk returns to Saddledome a Florida Panther

CALGARY – The reality of playing for an opposing team in what was once his home arena for so many seasons sank in for Matthew Tkachuk on Tuesday.

The 24-year-old winger returned to Calgary’s Saddledome, where he played the first six years of his NHL career with the Flames, as a Florida Panther.

“It was weird. I just got to the rink now and it’s just weird coming a different way,” Tkachuk said before Tuesday night’s game in Calgary.

“Lots of great memories here, special times. It’s probably not going to sink in until we get out there for warmups or the game. Just super jacked up and excited. I wouldn’t say nervous. Antsy, just kind of want to get it going.”

Calgary drafted Tkachuk sixth overall in 2016.

His combination of skill, abrasiveness and fearlessness — his between-the-legs goals are the stuff of highlight reels — made him a fan favourite at the Saddledome.

“I grew up here,” Tkachuk said. “I came in pretty oblivious to everything. I was 18 years old and not really thinking I probably knew a lot.”

But after posting a career-high 104 points with 42 goals and 62 assists last season, Tkachuk was headed for restricted free agency when he told the Flames he wouldn’t sign a long-term deal to stay in Calgary.

Flames general manager Brad Treliving dealt Tkachuk to the Panthers in a blockbuster deal for winger Jonathan Huberdeau, defenceman MacKenzie Weegar, prospect Cole Schwindt and a conditional first-round draft pick.

Tkachuk was soundly booed Monday night in Edmonton, where Tkachuk scored the first goal of the game in Florida’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Oilers.

“I was booed last night. Hopefully not the case tonight, but you never know,” Tkachuk said. “All the outside distractions that could come into play, I think it’s probably better that we’re here so quick, quick turnaround (with) a tough back-to-back.”

The Panthers and Flames dug into their coffers to lock their new arrivals into eight-year contracts.

Tkachuk signed for US$76 million in Florida, while Huberdeau ($84 million) and Weegar ($50 million) take up a sizable chunk of Calgary’s salary cap space.

Tkachuk faced his former teammates Nov. 19 in Sunrise, Fla., where the Flames prevailed 5-4 in a shootout. Tkachuk scored in regulation in that game, while Huberdeau scored in the second round of the shootout.

“Like the guys who came this way probably had the game in Florida circled, it’s the same with me,” Tkachuk said.

The six-foot-two, 201-pound forward didn’t feel his return to Calgary as a Panther closed the book on his life as a Flame.

“It would be unfair to my teammates, team, everybody that traded for me and brought me there, to have me not close the door already,” he explained. “When I got traded, as hard as it sounds, I closed the door then, out of respect for them.”

While Tkachuk’s 10 goals and 19 assists in his first 20 games as a Panther eclipsed Huberdeau’s 10 points in 18 Flames games, Weegar’s been a reliable big-minute man on Calgary’s back end and was plus-2 after 21 games.

Neither club parlayed the summer transaction into a gaudy record at this season’s quarter mark.

Heading into Tuesday’s game, the Panthers (10-8-4) and Flames (9-9-3) were hovering just below wild-card land in their respective conferences.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2022.


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