Hintz Heiskanen DAL GLO bug top left

NEW YORK -- Roope Hintz and Miro Heiskanen have been to an NHL game in Finland. It was the same game, Chicago Blackhawks against the Florida Panthers.

It was nearly 15 years ago, on Oct. 2, 2009. Hintz and Heiskanen sat in the upper bowl at Hartwall Arena in Helsinki with their fathers, Hintz also with a friend and his dad.

They didn't sit with each other. They didn't know each other. They were kids, Heiskanen 10 and Hintz 12, and fans at the first NHL regular-season game played in Finland, a 4-3 win for the Panthers on Finland-born defenseman Ville Koistinen's shootout winner in front of 12,056.

"That was pretty great to see," Heiskanen said. "That was awesome. It was the first time I saw an NHL game and it was great. I remember seeing Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith It went to a shootout. It was great."

Heiskanen and Hintz will be back in Finland for NHL games next season, only this time they'll be on the ice when the Stars play against the Panthers in the 2024 NHL Global Series presented by Fastenal, with two games at Nokia Arena in Tampere on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2.

They recognize that somewhere among the 13,000 or so fans might be the next Miro Heiskanen or the next Roope Hintz.

"I would say that's one of the biggest things in these games, it's for the kids, especially, when they get to come and see how it is, see the warmups and everything," Hintz said. "It's all big when you're that young. There might be some kid's favorite players or idols playing too."

Hintz laughed when it was mentioned that now he might be one of the idols.

That's too much for him even at 27 years old and as an established NHL center to fathom, even though it's likely true.

"That's exactly how it is," Heiskanen said. "Anything is possible. Just work hard and have fun with it and anything is possible. You're going to go as far as you can if you work hard and enjoy it. I was only 10 and still had eight years to the draft and all that stuff, but I was still thinking a little bit that it would be awesome that it would be possible."

Florida forward Anton Lundell had that same thought when he was at Hartwall Arena to watch the Panthers and Winnipeg Jets in the NHL Global Series game on Nov. 1, 2018.

He was 17.

"We went with my brother and my dad to watch the Panthers play in Finland, and then I got drafted by the Panthers [No. 12 in the 2020 NHL Draft], and now I'm playing with them and now we're going to go back to Finland with the Panthers," Lundell said. "It's almost like a full circle."

He sat in the upper bowl and saw his idol playing in that game, Aleksander Barkov, who now is his teammate. He's from Tampere.

"To see him live and see how good he is with your own eyes, not only from the TV with highlights, it was fun," Lundell said. "The whole experience, you get the NHL vibe, warmups, the music, the goal horn. It's all details that you get to experience yourself, which is very cool."

Panthers coach Paul Maurice was on the bench for that game too, only as coach of the Jets, who at the time had forward Patrik Laine, another Tampere native.

Maurice remembered Barkov and Laine being like rockstars on that trip, especially around the kids.

"So the next Anton Lundell or the next Barkov is going to be in the stands and they'll remember that," Maurice said. "They'll remember that for the rest of their lives. They can say, 'I remember seeing Barkov.' That's so cool. So cool. I believe in that idea that a countryman can inspire that out of kids. It's one thing to see an NHL game, but for a dad to say, 'Look, that's Aleksander Barkov, he's from here.' That does matter."

Hintz, Heiskanen and Lundell are proof of it.

"I've been one of those kids before, watching and trying to learn," Hintz said. "I'm pretty pumped to go play there."

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