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Tkachuk gets mixed reception in return to Saddledome as a Florida Panther

CALGARY — Boos and cheers greeted Matthew Tkachuk in his first game in Calgary as a Florida Panther, although there was more of the former whenever the puck was on his stick.
Florida Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk, left, has his shot grabbed by Calgary Flames goalie Dan Vladar during first period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY — Boos and cheers greeted Matthew Tkachuk in his first game in Calgary as a Florida Panther, although there was more of the former whenever the puck was on his stick.

A standout player for Calgary in his first six NHL seasons, Tkachuk was unlikely to get a neutral reaction at the Saddledome showing up in enemy colours after telling the Flames in the summer he didn't want to be part of the team in the future.

The Flames dumped the visitors 6-2 for a second win over the Panthers in less than a month following a 5-4 shootout victory Nov. 19 in Sunrise, Fla.

The Flames lauded Tkachuk with a video tribute early in Tuesday's first period. Tkachuk saluted the crowd and received a partial standing ovation.

He was immediately razzed again when play resumed, which had fans laughing at their own sudden switch in sentiment.

"Just passionate fans here," Tkachuk said following the game. "It was obviously nice to see that video. A couple seconds showing what my time was like on and off the ice here. It was nice to see."

The reality of playing for an opposing team in what was once his home arena sank in for Tkachuk on Tuesday.

The 24-year-old winger had 152 goals, 230 assists in 431 games for the team that made him the sixth overall pick in the 2016 draft.

"It was weird. I just got to the rink now and it's just weird coming a different way," Tkachuk said before Tuesday's game.

"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."

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 a restricted free agency who 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.

The Saddledome chanted "Hubie's better" in the third period Tuesday when Huberdeau assisted on Calgary's fifth goal.

The winger also scored a power-play goal in the first period.

Tkachuk got a taste of his Calgary reception the previous evening in Edmonton.

Oilers fans recalling Tkachuk tangling with their players voiced their derision at Rogers Place.

"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," Tkachuk said.

"Like the guys who came this way probably had the game in Florida circled, it's the same with me.

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 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 21 games as a Panther eclipsed Huberdeau's 12 points in 19 Flames games, Huberdeau had more impact in Tuesday's game.

Weegar's also been a reliable big-minute man on Calgary's back end and was plus-3 after 22 games.

Neither club has parlayed the summer transaction into a gaudy record.

The Panthers (10-9-4) and Flames (10-9-3) both hovered at the edge of wild-card territory in their respective conferences.

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

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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