Panthers’ Tomas Kopecky, Aleksander Barkov ready for Olympic experience

Panthers forwards Alekander Barkov (left) and Tomas Kopecky will compete in the Winter Olympics.

Tomas Kopecky and Aleksander Barkov have developed a camaraderie as teammates playing for the Florida Panthers.

When they step off the plane in Sochi, Russia late Sunday, it ends. At least for a couple weeks.

Kopecky and Barkov will represent Slovakia and Finland, respectively, at the 2014 Winter Olympics. And both have their sights set on gold, even if it comes at the expense of the other.

Their teams will not face off in the opening round since they are in different groups. The earliest the Panthers teammates could face each other is in the playoff round, which begins Feb. 18.

Should that happen, Kopecky and Barkov have already contemplated what they’d do if the other had the puck on their stick with a chance to win the game.

"I’m going to strip the puck from (Barkov)," Kopecky said. "Obviously, he’s my teammate here and he’s a great kid, a great competitor. I love those games. I love the games when we play the team I played with before, or I’m playing games where I know somebody on the other team. It’s just a little extra challenge. Who doesn’t like those challenges?"

The 18-year-old Barkov offers a more intense solution.

"(I’ll) hit him. I’ll do everything so he can’t score," Barkov said. "If we compete against him, it will be very fun."

Away from the ice, they’ll likely compare notes on the accommodations in Sochi. Photos from the Athletes’ Village have been eye-opening — from bathrooms with toilets next to each other to three tiny, single beds squished into one room.

That should make for interesting stories, especially for 6-foot-3 players like Kopecky and Barkov.

"You see those two toilets together, it’s like something you’ve never seen before," Kopecky said laughing. "I heard the village is beautiful, and the canteen, the eating area, is very nice."

Barkov, whose parents are Russian and has made frequent trips to visit family in Moscow, is not as surprised.

"It’s Russian," Barkov said of the tight accommodations. "I know it’s in Russia, so it will be like that."

Cat Bites

All fun aside, both said they’re humbled to be representing their countries.

For Kopecky and his Slovakian teammates, there is still bitterness as to how their nation was treated following the breakup of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s. Nothing would ease that more than a medal — especially gold — in Russia.

When Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the latter had to rebuild its hockey presence at the international level. While the Czechs were automatically recognized as a Pool A team by the International Ice Hockey Federation, the Slovaks were required to begin in Pool C. It took three years for the nation to regain its spot among the world’s best.

"It was unfortunate for us when we split in 1993 from the Czechs. We had to go as a country all the way back to the C pool and work our way up to the A pool in hockey," Kopecky said. "It was very awkward, but very tough. I watched the videos on YouTub, what they were going through, those players. It was interesting to see."

Even after Slovakia regained status as one of international hockey’s "Big Seven," the national team found itself at a disadvantage in Olympic competition. During the 1998 Nagano and 2002 Salt Lake City games, scheduling issues kept Slovakia’s NHL players from taking part in qualification rounds.

The Slovaks found redemption by winning the 2002 World Championship months later, and the IIHF restructured the Olympic tournament to ensure all teams would have access to their respective NHL players.

Slovakia came in fourth at the 2010 Vancouver games, its best finish at the Olympic level. But losing 5-3 to Finland in the Bronze Medal contest still sticks with Kopecky.

"It’s not easy to get over," Kopecky said. "I remember that game like it was yesterday. That’s one of the games you realize how fortunate you are to play in games like that.

"Losing that game is still a bummer. I still didn’t get over that game. I didn’t get over it. Especially now, Sochi is coming up and you think about it more and more."

For Barkov, there’s a desire to capture a medal he missed out on weeks earlier.

The Finn watched from Florida as his countrymen captured gold at the World Junior Championship in January. It was a bittersweet moment for Barkov, who was still eligible to participate in the event.

Given his impact in Florida, the Panthers were understandably reluctant to lose their top rookie — let alone one of their top players — for a couple weeks.

The disappointment has subsided, though, as he’ll get the chance to compete at hockey’s highest level.

"First I was happy to hear about that," Barkov said. "I was a little surprised."

Barkov may even get the opportunity to build his status among his esteemed teammates as the Finns have lost key players due to injury.

When the Finnish roster was announced in early January, Barkov was near the bottom of the depth chart. But veteran centers Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula pulled out with ankle injuries only days ago. That may force coach Erkka Westerlund into relying on Florida’s pivot more often.


Barkov said he has not talked to his Finnish teammates yet, but he is excited to have the opportunity to meet many of the players he grew up admiring.

"Teemu Selanne is a legend already," Barkov said. "It will be fun to meet him and everybody else, too."

Panthers coach Peter Horachek said he’s looking forward to watching both players. He’s especially excited for Barkov to gain such an experience at a young age.

"I think [Barkov] is worried that he’s not going to play only because there are so many veteran players," Horachek said. "It’s how international goes by seniority a little bit, too. I think it’s just a great thing for him to get a piece of that."

Kopecky and Barkov are sure to gain world-class experience in Sochi, but even if both return empty handed, the Panthers teammates have assured there will be prizes on the line.

Kopecky tweeted Saturday the duo has agreed to a side wager: The player with more points will get a car wash, while the one whose team finishes better gets a free dinner.

A sparkling car and prime-cut steak may be pleasing for Kopecky and Barkov, but nothing would top biting into a shiny gold medal.

You can follow Erin Brown on Twitter @rinkside or email her at erinbrownfla@gmail.com.