Monday, December 28, 2015

Tkachuk 2.0

Tkachuk: Grit comes Naturally

It was the second game of 17 year old Matthew Tkachuk’s young career as a World

Junior candidate, USA’s split squad White team vs Sweden in front of a couple

hundred fans at Herb Brooks Arena in early August. Despite the low-key

surroundings, was a major career crossroads event for Tkachuk. According to head

coach Ron Wilson, Tkachuk appeared to be a projected cut going into that Sweden

game. And then the puck dropped.

Tkachuk found himself on a line with Dylan Larkin and Anders Bjork and together

they helped the son of Boston hockey God Keith Tkachuk generate an offensive

explosion, erupting for five points including a natural hat trick in the second period.

He ripped his three goals in a span of 3:31, causing Wilson to change his tune

immediately following the game.

“Tkachuk was the best player. He scored three goals and had two assists. He looked

like his old man out there, who I coached previously. It looks like he is going to get

to stay, he was one of the borderline calls for us, but he made up for it, we have no

problem keeping him around.”

Young Tkachuk’s full offensive repertoire was on display, complete with one-timers,

net crashing and a world-class assist off the rush to set up Bjork in the third. But it

was a goal he scored after he had fallen that made Wilson a believer.

“He has a nose for the net and he fights and claws and he’s tenacious like his dad

was. He scored a goal tonight that reminded me just of his dad. When he’s on his

knees and he poked at the puck, he got a rebound and he poked at it, that’s a Keith

Tkachuk goal, and his son made him proud, for sure.” Comparing any American

player to Keith Tkachuk is daunting. The BU product from Melrose bypassed

magical milestones of 500 goals, 1000 points and 2000 PIM’s over his 19 year NHL

career, one of the great power forwards in NHL history.

“It’s a great compliment by coach Wilson,” said Matthew Tkachuk when he heard

that he was being compared to his dad. “It’s pretty hard to play like him, he was a

great player. I’m just trying to make an impression on my coaches, make my

teammates better. I feel like every game is a bubble game from now on. You have to

go out and work your hardest and prove to them every shift that you should be on

this team.”

Matthew will never be confused with his dad physically. Keith had arguably the

greatest hockey derriere of all time, taking up a lion’s share of his 235 pound bulk

on a 6’2” frame. Matthew’s body is much better suited to the panther-quick version

of today’s hockey, a lean 6’1,” 195. But don’t mistake his quickness for finesse; there

is a lot of sandpaper in this kid’s makeup. “It’s a huge part of my game, I love flirting

with the edge, I like playing physical, I like playing gritty, I like ticking off the other

team.”

Even though Matthew was raised in St. Louis, he is fully aware of his Boston

heritage. “It’s a great sports city. I lived there in the summers, or have the past few,

not this year. I know growing up my dad was a huge believer in Red Sox and

Patriots. He grew up a Bruins fan, even the Celtics. Though we weren’t a basketball

family, but every time they’re on we seem to watch it. It just speaks to what sports

does for that city.” But when asked why he wasn’t interested in playing for a

Beanpot school his rapid-fire responses took a pregnant pause. “Ooh… It’s a cool

event, I think my brother (Brady, committed to BU) is going to be experiencing it in

a couple of years. I decided to take the OHL route and I’m sticking by it and couldn’t

be happier.”

So college fans in Boston will have to wait a couple of years before seeing the next

Tkachuk in the Beanpot. Matthew, however, is projected as a top-10 NHL draft pick

this year, so performing in Boston Garden will be not be a case of if but when. He has

been groomed for the NHL for as long as he can remember. “I’m really fortunate to

have grown up around the game for so long, seeing all the players coming through,

like Dougie Weight and Chris Chelios, I saw all those guys when I was younger, I

actually had a couple of players living at my house. It’s just great to see what they

can do.”

For Chelios, a recently addition to the Team USA coaching staff, experiences déjà vu

when he eyeballs Matthew Tkachuk. “I remember him as a kid during the Olympics

running around the room with his brother. But now watching him, everything was

net front just like his father. He showed signs of it the game before, crashing the net,

getting his stick on the puck. It’s funny to watch him, it’s just like watching Keith 20

years ago.”

In the subsequent game versus Finland, young Tkachuk found himself riding

shotgun with elite snipers Colin White of Hanover, Mass. and Minnesota man Brock

Boeser. Although he did not ring up the gaudy scoring numbers from the game

before, Tkachuk was a net-front force once again, scoring a greasy goal from the

dirtiest part of the rink. Late in the tie game he was given all the ice time he could

handle, an unspoken covenant with the coaching staff that he would park himself in

front of the net and create havoc. He honored that trust. Following the overtime win

over the Finns, Coach Wilson singled out Tkachuk once again. “He was one of our

best players.”

Two days earlier this unpolished 17 year old was on the verge of being sent home to

St. Louis. Now, after cuts and a team consolidation, he is firmly entrenched as go-to

force. He is a mainstay of the power play and has rung up four goals in his last two

games.  He must be the proudest kid at the Olympic Center right? All his dreams

unfolding before him, confidence peaking?

“I wouldn’t say it’s high, I wouldn’t say it’s low. I expect to play the best I can every

night,” said the surprisingly subdued Tkachuk after a post-game shower. “It’s a great

compliment from coach Wilson; I felt I played pretty good, but I felt I definitely could

have been better.” Cue the record scratch sound effect. The youngest impact player

on this squad has gone from outhouse to penthouse in 48 hours, Streisand is singing

“Star is Born,” and Boy Wonder remains even-keeled? Where in the world does he

get that from?

“Of course I’m happy for him,” came the long-awaited comments from proud papa

Keith Tkachuk. His name has been crossing more and more lips on each tier of the

Olympic Center as Matthew’s star began rising. The consensus was that the man

known as ‘Walt’ would swoop in to Placid see his son’s destiny being created first

hand. “We haven’t even spoken, just giving him his space,” said Keith. Is he surprised

how even keeled Mathew is after his oldest boy’s star turn? “Yes, he’s so young. I’ve

seen him grow up, he realizes the big picture, he wants to get better. There’s a

pressure to continue, build on the success.”

From there, the dad began to analyze the hockey reality that paved the way for

Matthew’s success: how he’s surrounded by guys who have all grown up on the

power play, point producers who like to hang around the half wall. They’re aren’t

naturally inclined to get dirty down low, and Matthew has filled that void and

embraced it. And that role is vital to the team’s success. Shortly after Wilson praised

the 6’1” Tkachuk for his fearless play, the coach challenged his 6’3” forward Alex

Tuch of BC to sharpen his mean streak. USA has underachieved in three of the last

four World Juniors, failing to make the semifinals each of the last two. Wilson

spelled it out in the presser: “We need net presence.”

Greatness finds those individuals through opportunity, sometimes before they know

they are ready. 17 year old Matthew Tkachuk has been groomed for this high-end

hockey job through nature and nurture, ahead of schedule, just like his dad. As a 19

year old, Keith played in both the World Juniors and the 1992 Albertville Olympics,

scoring a massive goal against the Russian “Unified Team” in the semifinals. He

scored from that same dirty area that Matthew has been working to earn his chops.

Current USA Hockey GM Jim Johannson was on that Olympic team with Keith, and

can’t help but compare father and son.

“I think down low the battle effort is real similar, I think the sturdiness is very

similar,” said the man known as JJ. “Keith, when he was younger, was more of a

spurt player, pretty immediate, pretty straight line. I think Matthew is a little bit

more creative. They both know how to get the edge on guys.” Then Johannson gave

the best dissection of the week between father and son. “I think they’re both smart

enough to know that when they get a guy under them, the guy might either take a

penalty against him, or the guy might overplay him the next time.  Matthew is

certainly elusive enough to get away when they do that. I think Keith would have

probably bowled him over.”

Today’s hockey no longer has roster spots for china shop bulls, but Team USA is now

enamored with the son of one. The sleek new edition of Tkachuk 2.0 should be ready

for its global debut New Year’s in Helsinki.

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