“This will always be home,'' he said on June 20, 2008.
Apparently those weren't empty words. To Jokinen, South Florida has really become his home.
He comes back Saturday.
Jokinen, the former Panthers captain who played in Florida from 2000 until the draft night trade to the Coyotes, will play in his first game at BankAtlantic Center since the Panthers home finale of the 2007-08 season when the New York Rangers play Florida at 7 p.m.
“This is going to be a special game,'' Jokinen said from Tampa on Thursday night. The Rangers played the Lightning on Friday.
“It'll be nice to go back there. I have a lot of good memories in that building. But it will be weird. I don't know what to expect, but I think there will be some booing and cheering. I really did enjoy my time playing for the Panthers. There's a good group of hard core fans there and I got to know a lot of them. Hopefully there's a lot of people there.''
At the end of the 2007-08 season, there were been plenty of whispers that Jokinen's time with the Panth ers had expired. A few days after that season ended, Jacques Martin was fired as coach but asked to stay on as the team's general manager.
Martin and Jokinen had quietly feuded and there was talk that Jokinen had lost his voice in the locker room as some said his poor play in the final month of that season was an attempt to get Martin fired as Florida's bench boss. Jokinen had five goals and eight assists in the final 24 games.
By summertime, once Martin reluctantly agreed to remain the team's GM, it was obvious Jokinen would be shipped out. Jokinen, knowing he was gone, even went so far as to formally request a trade.
Only he never really left. Jokinen went to Arizona, was traded to Calgary last season and then traded again February 2 to the Rangers. All the while, he kept his home in Parkland, living there with his wife Katerina and their daughters Alexandra and Emma during the offseason.
After the Olympics – one in which Jokinen helped Finland win Bronze -- Katerina packed up the house in Calgary and moved back to Broward, putting the kids back in their old schools.
“They are all going to be at the game so everyone is real excited,'' Olli Jokinen said. “There was no point for them to stay in Calgary. South Florida is still home and it's nice the girls can go back where they have friends.''
Jokinen says he doesn't know what reception he'll get from the local fans on Saturday. Many blamed him for Florida's postseason problems, and until he made the playoffs with Calgary last season, he was the league's record-holder with 799 games played before making the playoffs.
Calgary flamed out of last year's playoffs but Jokinen could get another shot at the postseason as the Rangers are fighting to get into the mix. New York came into Friday's game four points out of the final spot with a week left. The Panthers still haven't made the playoffs.
“It's always tough to see them struggle to get into the playoffs,'' said Jokinen. “There are new owners there, so we'll see what happens. I was in the west for a while so I didn't get to follow them too much, but I have been now. I guess they still have a small chance to make it. I hear there's a good coach there, and it's Randy Sexton's team now. The owners say they have a plan, but it's tough on the players who have been there a long time.''
Jokinen admits that he doesn't talk to many of his old teammates in Florida – even though there aren't many left. Of Florida's probable lineup for Saturday, only seven players – Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, Tomas Vokoun and Rostislav Olesz among them – remain from the 2007-08 season.
“He was here for a while in Florida and there will always be fans of the Rangers there,'' said Horton, who was close with Jokinen but it's obvious that isn't the case anymore. “This is where he made his name and became a great hockey player here. Olli was the go-to player here for a long time so I'm sure he's excited.''
-- Steve MacIntyre was sent back to Rochester on Friday. No word on Victor Oreskovich's status. He left Thursday's game early after getting smashed into the boards. Byron Bitz is out, but Gregory Campbell could be good enough to go if Oreskovich cannot. Campbell loves playing the Rangers.
SATURDAY: RANGERS AT PANTHERS
When, Where: 7 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FSNF; WAXY 790
The series: Rangers lead 35-27-6
The game: The Panthers snapped their four game losing streak on Thursday as Scott Clemmensen blanked the Bruins 1-0. Clemmensen, who is expected to start Saturday, had back-to-back shutouts for the Devils last season. Clemmensen's shutouts came, coincidentally, against the Bruins – and Rangers.