SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Kyle Okposo’s first Stanley Cup memory came as an 8-year-old boy, when he watched the Colorado Avalanche defeat the Florida Panthers in the 1996 Stanley Cup Final.

That series — a quick sweep for the Avalanche, who won their first ever NHL title — ignited Okposo’s love for hockey. Now, after a career that has lasted 17 years and spans three teams, the 36-year-old Panthers right winger finally gets a shot at his own championship experience.

“It’s been a long road to get here,” Okposo said Friday, one day before the Panthers host the Edmonton Oilers in Game 1 of the final.

He grinned eagerly at the thought of hoisting the trophy that has eluded him, despite piling up more than 1,000 career NHL games, 242 goals, 372 assists and a 2017 All-Star nod.

“There was a long time where I wasn’t close to getting to this point,” said Okposo, who made 24 postseason appearances with the New York Islanders in his first nine NHL seasons but never got past the second round. “I’ve had a long career and some ups, some downs and (thought) maybe it’s just a good career, and I don’t even get a chance.”

For a while, that was enough for him.

Then came the chance to join the Panthers fresh off their 2023 run to the final with room for his experience and leadership, and Okposo wasted no time, knowing the expectations were to get back to the same spot.

“I wanted to make sure that I was giving myself the best opportunity to win, and this is where I thought it would be,” Okposo said.

The former Buffalo captain’s role has looked different with the loaded Panthers. He played a total of 65 minutes in six regular-season games and has gotten into 11 playoff games, but he’s perfectly fine with that.

“Pretty special thing for me in the last couple of years, where I’ve worn a lot of hats,” Okposo said. “I’ve been a first-line guy, first power play, penalty kill guy. And then you play fourth line, healthy scratch, I’ve done a lot. So I have appreciation for everything a team requires to win. It’s not just your first-line guys, it’s not just your fourth-line guys. You all have to be in unison. And that’s why this sport is the best in the world — is because your star players alone cannot win you a championship.”

WHERE IT STARTED

Connor McDavid’s career started in South Florida, so it’s only fitting that the chance to win his first Stanley Cup trophy comes in the same building where Edmonton drafted him first overall in 2015.

“It’s kind of funny how it’s worked out,” McDavid said. “It’s full circle, almost nine years to the day in this building.”

Expectations then were just as high as they are now for the three-time league MVP and five-time leading scorer. He’s been compared to the greats of the game — from Wayne Gretzky to Sidney Crosby, and even greats of other games like LeBron James — and expected since the moment he entered the league to lead the Oilers to their first Stanley Cup title since 1990.

“I think looking back, it goes by so fast,” McDavid said. “It feels like it was yesterday that (draft) night was happening, and here we are nine years later.”

OIL CHANGES

Edmonton appears to be making a couple of lineup tweaks for Game 1, with Warren Foegele back on the fourth line in place of Derek Ryan and Philip Broberg moving to the right side on defense.

Foegele was a healthy scratch for the final three games of the Western Conference final against Dallas after scoring 20 goals during the regular season.

“What he provides us is a little bit of offense,” coach Kris Knoblauch said. “Also he’s just another guy who adds some more speed to our team. Obviously, we took him out of the lineup, which wasn’t easy for us to do after the year he had. But it’s nice to have the opportunity to put him back in.”

Foegele, an offensive player prone to turnover trouble, knows he has to make better decisions. Broberg said he’s comfortable playing either side on the blue line.

The Panthers are not expected to make any changes from the lineup they had in their East final clincher against the New York Rangers.

FLORIDA FREE AGENTS

The Panthers have more than a handful of pending free agents who, without a new contract before July 1, could be playing elsewhere next season. None is more prominent than forward Sam Reinhart, who scored 57 goals during the regular season and eight more in the playoffs.

“Honestly, really haven’t thought about it too much, certainly not now,” Reinhart said. “Maybe personally you get off to a good start, it’s easy to keep everything else on the back burners in the back of your mind. I’ve had no issues with it. The team’s had no issues with it. We’re focused on the task at hand.”

Defenseman Brandon Montour, who can also become an unrestricted free agent, said only, “I’m just trying the best I can for this team, and the rest will take care of itself afterwards.”

TATUM, TKACHU K CHASING TITLES

Stand up, Chaminade College Preparatory in St. Louis.

A pair of former Chaminade students — the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and the Florida Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk — are currently playing for titles. The Celtics lead the NBA Finals 1-0; the Panthers open the Stanley Cup Final against Edmonton on Saturday.

Tkachuk and Tatum have been friends for years.

“It’s actually really cool when you think about it,” Tkachuk said. “I think everyone from St. Louis, you know, whether they were going to watch or not … they’re pulling for both teams. So, it’s super cool to have that support back home, for not only myself but for the Celtics as well. I think it would be unreal for Chaminade and all of St. Louis if we can both win it.”

And yes, even in the Miami Heat home market, Tkachuk says he’s rooting for Boston — which eliminated the Heat in Round 1 of this year’s NBA playoffs.

TWIN CELEBRATION

Jonah Gadjovich has not played in a single playoff game for the Panthers this spring. Even as a healthy scratch, he’s still someone that teammates insist is worth celebrating.

The Panthers have a tradition: The player of the game gets the game puck, and then that player gets to put it on the makeshift plaque that has 16 puck-sized holes cut out — one for each win that it’ll take to capture the Stanley Cup.

After the Panthers beat the New York Rangers on May 30 for a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference final, Niko Mikkola presented the puck not to someone in uniform — but to Gadjovich, who was in a suit. The Panthers couldn’t have been happier.

“I was not expecting that,” Gadjovich said. “That was really special. … It just shows that we’re a family, seriously. People say that. They throw it around. We mean it here.”

Gadjovich and his wife welcomed twins — son Lion, daughter Adalee — on May 22. That Rangers game was the first one where he was back around the team following the births.

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AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds contributed to this report.

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