Three games into the 2021 NHL regular season, Calgary Flames fans are gleefully relishing the all-Canadian chapter of what they lovingly call the Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour.
For at age 23, Tkachuk is a throwback to old-school hockey defined by nasty rivalries and real — not manufactured — hatred between combatants.
More irritating than a sharp pebble in a hiking boot, the eldest son of NHL legend Keith Tkachuk artfully antagonizes his opponents to the point they can’t think clearly.
“I think it suits my style,” says Tkachuk, who will lead the Flames into battle Sunday in Toronto. “One of my gifts is that it doesn’t take much to get me up for games.
“But it’s going to be a lively night, every night, with all eyes on us in this country.”
‘I know what type of player I am’
Tkachuk is already despised in Edmonton, for “turtling” on Oilers forward Zack Kassian and refusing to fight in a memorable game last January at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
He’s reviled in Winnipeg for knocking centre Mark Scheifele out of the 2019/2020 Stanley Cup qualifiers. And there’s also the natural rivalry with his younger brother Brady in Ottawa.
There’s no doubt he’ll offend countless others all season long.
“I don’t really think about how other people portray me or think of me,” says Tkachuk a first-round (sixth overall) selection of the Flames in the 2016 NHL Draft. “I know what type of player I am.”
In the season opener against Winnipeg, Tkachuk was centre stage, scrumming with Jets sniper Patrik Laine, chirping with Jets captain Blake Wheeler and scoring a goal.
On Monday night, the Canucks held Tkachuk off the scoresheet, but he still had tremendous impact.
Calgary centre Elias Lindholm potted the winning goal with the man advantage in a 5-2 Flames victory.
It’s hardly a new storyline. Tkachuk has drawn a league-leading 163 penalties since his NHL debut in 2016/17 (Tom Wilson, of the Washington Capitals, is second with 156 and Edmonton centre Connor McDavid is third with 147.)
More than a pest
But Tkachuk is hardly just a world-class pest. He led the Flames in scoring last season (23 goals and 61 points in 69 games) and promises to do even more in this campaign.
“I look at it for myself, and I have to take not only a step but two steps, five steps, 10 steps forward this year if I want to become the player I want to be,” Tkachuk says. “It’s time to make a difference.
“I don’t just want to be known as a certain player. I want to be a player who makes a difference every single night.”
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This season, Tkachuk, Lindholm and Andrew Mangiapane make up what is arguably Calgary’s first line, ahead of even Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Dominik Simon.
While the Flames lack the star power of Edmonton (McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) and Toronto (Auston Matthews), they have impressive depth up front and a world-class goaltender in Jacob Markstrom.
Coming off a first-round playoff exit courtesy of Dallas, the Flames are determined to establish themselves as members of the NHL elite.
“It’s time for people to look at us as a serious contender throughout the league,” Tkachuk says. “We have to be looked at as one of those teams that is a contender each and every season and I think we have to start proving that.”