Saturday, July 9, 2016

A cinch ... Matthew Tkachuk ... POWER to draw from

By Larry Wigge

Keith Tkachuk's basement used to carry on some heated battles.

The battles were intense. The walls would shake, rattle and roll as the former St. Louis Blues power forward would play host the one or more or his rookie roomies David Backes, Lee Stempniak and Philip McRae all lived in the Tkachuk basement when they first joined the team ... and Matthew Tkachuk has pictures with all of them on the wall of his room.

"I used to play hockey in their basement with him with mini-sticks," explained Backes. "I can't believe he's going to be draft eligible."

Tkachuk was actually chosen sixth overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the Calgary Flames.

"He was kind of a reckless ball of energy," Backes continued. "He just kept on going and I think that's served him well in his growth in the game and his prospects for playing pro hockey."

Basil McRae remembers those days.

"Matthew's what I would call a modern-day power forward," says McRae, GM of the London Knights team Tkachuk suited up for last tseason. "He scores nice goals and makes nice plays ... but he's also kind of a junk-yard dog in front of the net."

You could see the kid shaping up an intimidating power forward much like his father. And you could see Backes and Tkackuk's learning from the feet of the master power player with some nifty moves down in Keith and Chantel's basement.

Keith Tkachuk high was 52 goals in 1996-97 -- twice he topped the 50-goal mark and two more time he had 40-goals as he combined with power forwards ... Phil Esposito and Tim Kerr, Cam Neely and Kevin Stevens, Joe Nieuwendyk and Dave Andreychuk, Brendan Shanahan and Jaromir Jagr, and Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.

Backes has exceeded 30 goals twice in his career. Watching Tkachuk and Backes could show a young-and-inspired power forward some nifty moves growing up.

Scoring in front of the nets, where the truly great power players get down and dirty. Finding the right spots -- holes in the defenses as well. If anything is missing -- it's the snarly look from Tkachuk.

Matthew contributed 38 goals for the US Development Program in 2014, after getting 13 goals for the US Juniors in 2014-15. He moved on to the London Knight in 2015-16 and won the junior championship. First, he scored 30 goals and 77 assists for London and in the playoffs 20 goals and 20 assists in 18 games.

"He's a huge influence. I mean I look to him whenever there's a problem, whenever there's something good ... I tell him everything," said Matthew. "He's been there every step of the way for me so far and he'll continue to be."

As an NHL player, Dale Hunter saw first-hand the skills that made Keith Tkachuk an elite power forward.

"You see Keith's stature," London coach Dale Hunter said. "He could score goals, played hard. He finds good areas to score and he plays hard and he's hard to play against.

"He's in front of the net, he's got no fear, he's got great hands in tight. He gets them off the rush but he also gets them NHL style, standing in front, tipping pucks and winning battles."

Hunter continued, "Keith was very hard to play against, he's a lot like his son. They're sort of a spitting image."

That attitude was instilled in him by his father. The advice he handed out was always the same.

"Whenever we drove home after practice, or talked about hockey, he would just always say compete hard and be a good teammate ...

"His two main points of focus, always, is about compete and be a good teammate," Matthew Tkachuk explained. "So that's what I focus on every day."

Keith Tkachuk was one of the best power forwards of his era. He made his debut with the Winnipeg Jets in 1991-92 and finished his career with 538 goals and 527 assists in 1,201 games with Winnipeg/Arizona, St. Louis and Atlanta.

He was an all-star five times. Internationally, he represented the United States at four Olympic Games and helped the Americans win the 1996 World Cup.

Like Matthew, Brady, the youngest son, is a product of the suddenly fertile St. Louis minor hockey system. Unlike his brother, he's headed for BU next year, where his grandparents and an army of aunts, uncles and cousins await.

Keith’s father, John, was a Boston firefighter who worked the bulldog crew at the old Boston Garden, putting down the parquet floor for Celtics games after Bruins games. His mother, Gerry, is the aunt of former NHLer Tom Fitzgerald.

"They wanted one of us to go (to BU)," Matthew says. "They're all excited."

Keith says, "He's doing a good job. At the end of the day it's not easy for him. He's been at the mercy of his brother and his father. He's got the Boston temper and I'm trying to manage that a bit."

He's asked about his father and whether that name has been a burden or a blessing.

"It's never been a negative," says Tkachuk. "The only way it would be a negative is if I compare myself to him. I don't do that. I'm my own player. I know that. He knows that. But I think I'm on the right track to achieve some of the things he achieved.'

And that’s an enticing thought for anyone who drafts the left winger.

Matthew is 6-1, weighs in at 195 pounds.

"He's the best player in the draft from the (faceoff) dots in,' says Canucks GM Jim Benning, who's seen Tkachuk play 15 times this season. Just saying.

"He's more skilled than I was," Keith says. "These kids do stuff at a young age I couldn't do as a pro .... I just wish I got a chance to see him more."

The growth of Matthew Tkackuk.

"I was 3 when I started playing hockey," Tkachuk said. "I just fell in love with it from the beginning. I used to go to my dad's games and he forced me into skates but I just loved it.

"Being around the guys and seeing how they cared about themselves as professionals. I saw what it takes to be a pro hockey player."

After Keith finished his pro career, he served as one of Matthew’s hockey coaches for a few seasons.

"It wasn't easy, but he wants the best for me. He pushed just as hard and didn't give me anything easy," Matthew said. "I feel because of that I have become stronger and better because of him. It's unbelievable when I look back. I wouldn't be here without him or my mom."

Matthew, who hails from St. Louis, credits the NHL's Blues for making his hometown a "hockey hotbed" for the next generation of players.

"Growing up, when I was really young, the Blues were not that good," he said. "Not everybody was into hockey. In the last five years, the former pros have really been promoting the game around St. Louis, helping out with youth teams and camps.

"They are making St. Louis a hockey hotbed. I look at the players that have made it, playing for Team USA and going onto the pros. They want to do the same things. It is the coaching and parents who are willing to do whatever
for us."

Director of amateur scouting for the Flames Tod Button explains, "We call him an 'inside-the-dots' player. He's got really good hands and he can make good plays in traffic. He's got really, really soft hands and he can make soft little passes in tight areas which is a skill in itself. But he can also play hard. He can get the shot off in traffic when guys are cross-checking him and hacking him. He's always in the mix and always in the middle. It's a hard game he plays. He plays hard and it's not easy to succeed that way.

"He's got a great compliment in the two guys he plays with but he adds a lot to that line with his physicality and creating space for those guys."

Another of Keith's favorite teammates was Jeremy Roenick. He, too, has connections with Matthew.

"His compete level and intelligence really stood out," Roenick said. "If you watch him, he plays a lot like Keith Tkachuk. He's not the fastest, but because of his hockey sense he puts himself in good position. That's engrained in his blood from dad.

"I was there when Matthew was born and watched him grow up and then I saw his name on the list and made a couple phone calls to make sure he was on my team," Roenick continued. "Keith said, 'You better play my kid a lot, he needs to get drafted high.' I said, 'Don't worry, I'm gonna try and get him to play the whole game.' "

Matthew Tkachuk went through the first ordeal to the draft. Next ...

"I'm a guy who's a winner," he said. "I can contribute on offense and be an offensive weapon. If I play my game, I think I can be one of the best in the draft."


With such father as Keith Tkachuk to draw POWER from ...

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