By MARTY KLINKENBERG
Thursday, April 11, 2019
CALGARY -- Few hockey players are as gifted as Matthew Tkachuk at driving opponents into a fit of despair. Oh, those flying elbows and wellaimed jabs with the stick. Oh, that bristle after the whistle and those flapping gums.
The Flames' young firebrand can be as irritating as a horsefly at a picnic.
"He has the ability to really annoy guys," says James Neal, who was on the receiving end before he signed a contract with Calgary last summer. "Guys on other teams want to kill him sometimes."
The bratty behaviour distracts from just how skilled Tkachuk really is. He is 21 and an alternate captain on a playoff team poised to make a run. His 34 goals and 77 points were career bests, and helped the Flames have their most outstanding season in 30 years.
Their first-round series against the Colorado Avalanche begins at the Saddledome on Thursday night. Calgary won all three games between them during the regular season, but now everyone has a clean slate.
"We are going to need him to be at his best throughout the playoffs," Neal says.
Off the ice, Tkachuk is as unabashedly polite as he is nettlesome on it. It is what surprises most upon meeting him.
He is quiet and friendly and takes pains to play down his reputation as a spit disturber. "I don't even really think about it," Tkachuck says as he sits in the Flames dressing room.
"I have played the same way since I was a kid. I have always done whatever is necessary to help my team win."
He was born in Arizona when his dad, Keith, played for the Phoenix Coyotes. One of the greatest U.S.-born players in history, Keith Tkachuk scored 538 goals and amassed 1,065 points over a 19-year-career.
He was a left-wing, and so is Matthew.
Keith played with the same grate and grit, but he didn't pass that down to his son.
"What I remember most is the way he treated people," Matthew Tkachuk says.
"He treated everybody with the same respect, whether it was members of the training staff or a parking lot attendant at the rink. That is what he taught me and what I try to do today."
His dad brought him along to practice as a baby, setting his car seat down on the Coyotes bench. When Keith moved to St.
Louis a few years to play for the Blues, Joel Quenneville, the team's coach, allowed Matthew watch drills from the bench.
When he was older, Matthew and his younger brother, Brady, now a member of the Ottawa Senators, played knee hockey outside the dressing room as they waited for their dad. Sometimes, they would skate before the team came out onto the ice.
"That's where I spent a lot of time throughout my young life," Matthew says.
"I had that passion and inner drive to play in the NHL from an early age."
When his father was on the road, Matthew's mother, Chantal, would be co-erced to play play hours of mini-sticks.
"He was all in, 100 per cent," Keith Tkachuk says by telephone from St. Louis.
Matthew grew up in the suburbs of St.
Louis and played minor hockey there. In 2015, he led the United States to a gold medal at the International Ice Hockey Federation world under-18 championship, and a year later signed with the London Knights, who had drafted him in the fourth round of the 2013 OHL draft. Playing on a line with Mitch Marner, Tkachuk scored 107 points and placed fifth in the league in scoring.
Leading up to the 2016 NHL draft, Tkachuk was second-ranked among North American skaters and touted as a future star. The Flames selected him with the sixth pick in the first round and he made the team that year as an 18-year-old.
"As parents we were nervous about a lot of things," Keith Tkachuk says. "He had grown up fast by playing hockey in the U.S.
development program and in the OHL, but he was still pretty young.
"Calgary did a great job as an organization in making my wife and myself feel at ease. The way they approached things made us feel confident that he would be looked after.
"Everything just felt right."
Tkachuk started his rookie season living with teammate Sean Monahan and his girlfriend and stayed with them for a month. After that, he went apartment hunting for the first time and settled in to life in the NHL.
It has been nothing but good for him so far. He scored 13 goals and had 48 points in his first season, improved those numbers to 24 goals and 49 points last year and then made the big jump to 34 and 77 this season.
"I thought the transition to the NHL would be harder, but my teammates and management made it seamless," Matthew Tkachuk says. "The help that I received made it easier that it would have been normally."
Tkachuk has rapidly become as popular with the Flames fans as he is despised by followers of other teams. Many in the crowd at the Saddledome on Thursday night will wear his No. 19 jersey, and they will be plentiful as well at the street party on the Red Mile. The entertainment district near the Saddledome has been called that since 2004, when as many as 60,000 people gathered to celebrate on game nights during the team's last significant playoff run.
The Flames lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup final, but they caused great excitement along the way.
"It was absolutely amazing because nobody anticipated it," says Wayne Leong, who in 2004 operated a dining and drinking establishment along the 10-block stretch of Southwest 17th Avenue that has come to be known as the Red Mile. "Fans weren't terribly excited at the start of the season, and even in January they weren't playing very well. It just kind of grew organically."
Leong ended up trademarking the phrase "Heart of the Red Mile" to describe where the Melrose Cafe and Bar sat at the time. He has since moved locations to a few hundred metres from the Saddledome.
He says he has gone from the Heart of the Red Mile to its start.
On Tuesday night, the restaurants and bars along Southwest 17th Avenue were packed. Mayhem will occur once the street is shut down leading up to Game 1.
The snow is gone in Calgary. Geese are honking. Birds are nesting. Prairie dogs are digging holes all around the outside of the Saddledome. The playoffs are in the air.
The Flames' Matthew Tkachuk, right, practises in Calgary on Tuesday.
JEFF MCINTOSH/THE CANADIAN PRESS