By Larry Wigge
"Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.'
Jonathan Huberdeau just laughs, when he considers his foot speed in hockey -- despite taking speed-skating lessons at a young age. He might still need some work.
"It was funny," he said. "I always came in last. I would jump out to a lead at the start, but then I'd always look over my shoulder and lose my speed. They'd all catch up and that was it."
Don't look back. Don't ever look back.
The Saint Jerome, Quebec, native, didn't know what he was saying was a phrase coined by Negro League baseball pitcher Satchel Paige years ago.
No doubt Huberdeau had to go home and look up Paige ... and see what it meant.
"My mom and dad wanted me to learn how to skate before playing hockey," Huberdeau said, "so they enrolled me in these speed-skating classes."
Since Huberdeau didn't own a pair of speed skates, he used hockey skates instead. Needless to say, the results were hardly encouraging.
But his skating was good enough to score 43 and 30 goals for St. John's Sea Dogs of the Quebec Hockey League -- and good enough for Huberdeau to be drafted No. 3 overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft by the Florida Panthers behind only Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog.
"This is another big piece of the puzzle," Panthers GM Dale Tallon said. "Great player, two-way player, unselfish, passionate, moves the puck and makes players better around him.
"He is a proven winner who leads by example both on and off the ice. He is a great two-way player, who shows passion for the game and makes players around him better. Jonathan had an excellent preseason and we look forward to his progress this season with Saint John."
As a rookie, the 6-1, 171-pounder has contributed 13 goals and 14 assists in 40 games through April 12. The 13 goals represents the most goal by any rookie.
"He's much stronger on his skates," said Scott Luce, the Panthers scouting supervisor. "Guys are having a hard time handling him."
Brian Skrudland, the team's director of player devopment, said, "He has vision that is special, and you see that come along once in a blue moon. We don't think there's a limit. The capabilities he showed last year in training camp, he's so unassuming, you watch and say, 'Wow.' He plays against bigger players and is up for the challenge."
In fact, the Panthers first pick became the first Florida player to score on two penalty shots in one season. His first came against Philadelphia's Ilya Bryzgalov on February 21 and the second came against Winnipeg's Ondrej Pavelec on March 5.
Said coach Kevin Dineen of his rookie star: "That was a pretty good snapshot of his high-end skill set. A fairly impressive debut to say the least."
Huberdeau's mother, Josee, said her son is modest about his accomplishments but also doesn't lack confidence.
"He's very disciplined. Always does his schoolwork ... and then his hockey work," she said. "He's very sociable and just wants to have success in whatever he does."
Huberdeau is the type of player who can change the outcome of a game suddenly and quickly. He's displayed unbelievably quick hands and an ability to set up and score goals. He definitely has NHL hands and playmaking ability.
Jonathan Huberdeau grew up about 25 miles away from where the Canadiens play yet didn't get to see many games in person.
Tickets are hard to get in Montreal as games are always sold out and prices on the secondary market are extremely high.
So, believe it or not, Huberdeau attended more Florida Panthers home games as a kid than Canadiens games in Montreal.
The Saint-Jerome, Quebec, native and his family spent time snowbirding in South Florida -- and being hockey fans, they found their way to the arena in Sunrise to check out whomever was in town. Sometimes it was the Canadiens.
"We were always there for Christmas,'' Huberdeau said.
In January, the Panthers' rookie winger had a pretty good view of things at the Bell Center as he played in his third NHL game on ice he was well accustomed to seeing -- from television, anyway.
"I grew up watching the Canadiens, so to play here is really cool,'' Huberdeau said after Florida's 4-1 loss.
Huberdeau's parents brought their Winnebago down to South Florida as they've followed their son's progress through training camp and watched his NHL debut last weekend at the BB&T Center.
There are those around the NHL that say Huberdeau reminds them of Tampa Bay's Vinny Lecavalier.
"I have good vision and good skill with my hands ... and I can play both ways," Huberdeau said. "They can put me on penalty killing and I'll do the job on the power play. If the coach wants me to play defensively, I'll do that, it's not a problem. I think that's my strength."
Bu he is still a rookie. Still learning.
"I would say the execution is a lot faster here than junior," he said. "The size of the guys, too, is much bigger here and I'm trying to adapt and be quicker.
"I'm still learning. I have lots to learn. It just happens I had a good start, but I have to keep going and keep the tempo going."
Jonathan Huberdeau has the NHL buzzing about his progress.