Matthews (Left) and Tkachuk (right) celebrate after a goal in the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship Bronze Medal Game.
Among the many factors that prepared Matthew Tkachuk for a breakout NHL rookie season, including his NHL legend and U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame father, Keith Tkachuk, was his time with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.
“I was only a sophomore in high school when I started [with the NTDP], but I think that’s when I first realized the NHL was my ultimate goal,” Tkachuk said. “Everybody kind of sets that goal, but that’s when you believe you can really make it.”
Tkachuk has quietly thrived during a season in the NHL that features several rookie standouts, including Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets standout Zach Werenski. The trio – who helped Team USA earn a bronze medal at the 2016 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship – are each NTDP products who wasted no time grabbing NHL headlines. While Matthews and Werenski have received NHL Rookie of the Month honors, Tkachuk has been just as productive for the Calgary Flames, ranking in the top five in rookie points and second in rookie assists.
“I think I’m put in a spot where I’m asked to produce, so I just try to do that,” Tkachuk said. “I’m having a lot of fun right now and I think our team is going in the right direction, which is always nice to see.”
Tkachuk, the third-youngest player in the NHL, has made the transition look easy while keeping the game simple.
“You just don’t try anything out of your element,” Tkachuk said. “You don’t try to do what you did at juniors, whether you take a 1:30 or two-minute shift or try an extra toe drag. You just try to play simple and when you’re given that small window to make a play or do something special, you try to do it.
Tkachuk (bottom left) and his teammates after winning bronze at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Tkachuk enjoyed a special run when he rattled off a nine-game point streak last month, the longest of any other rookie this season.
“When I got up towards eight or nine, I started hearing about it,” Tkachuk said. “You don’t really recognize it until people start asking you about it. It’s pretty cool, but all good things come to an end. It’s probably good that it ended there so I can focus on playing.”
Despite his own success thus far, Tkachuk has enjoyed seeing friends and former teammates succeed this seen, as well. Chief among them is Matthews, his NTDP linemate who now leads the Toronto Maple Leafs in scoring.
“We’re really good buddies,” Tkachuk said. “I’m not surprised the slightest bit that he’s having this much success and I think it will just continue. We still keep in touch a lot, whether it’s texting or Snapchat. It’s fun to get to play against him, but it’s even more fun to see him off the ice whether it’s in Calgary or Toronto.”
Tkachuk is also close with Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner, as the two played junior hockey on a line with Arizona Coyotes’ rookie standout and fellow 2016 U.S. National Junior Team bronze medalist Christian Dvorak last season in Ontario with the London Knights.
“I had a lot of fun with [Marner] and Christian Dvorak,” Tkachuk said.
Tkachuk (bottom left) and his teammates after winning the 2015 IIHF Under-18 Men's World Championship.
He had just as much fun while playing with the NTDP. Tkachuk attended school while playing with the NTDP, but said it was similar to a NHL day with practices, workouts and trainings after classes ended. Tkachuk remains close with several of the Americans who, along with him and Matthews, helped the 2015 U.S. National Under-18 Team win the IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championship.
“The NTDP was some of the most fun I had playing hockey,” Tkachuk said. “I’m so close with a lot of the players that were on that team.”
This past December and January, Matthews watched as several of his former NTDP teammates helped Team USA defeat Canada in a 5-4 shootout to win the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship in dramatic fashion.
“I was keeping a close tab on them, wishing them good luck and everything,” said Tkachuk. “I was so happy for them and they are still some of my best friends.”
Tkachuk was part of history this past summer when he was one of five players from his hometown of St. Louis selected in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft. Tkachuk, at number six, was the highest player ever selected from St. Louis – one before childhood teammate, Clayton Keller.
“That was a special day for St. Louis,” Tkachuk said. “It speaks volumes to all the former players staying back and teaching us how to play hockey and how to have fun at an early age.”
One of those former players was his father Keith Tkachuk, who is considered one of the best U.S.-born players in NHL history. Tkachuk, who also represented the United States on eight occasions, is one of five American-born players to score 500 goals and the sixth to score 1,000 points. But he also had a gritty, physical side with more than 2,000 penalty minutes, an aspect of the game his son has picked up.
“My dad was telling me, he’d rather see me play hard and get forced into something than to play soft and not be around the puck,” Tkachuk said. “I just try to be around the puck as much as possible and try to be involved in the game as much as I can.”
That has helped contribute to a dynamic rookie season for Tkachuk.
“My favorite thing to do is score goals and win,” Tkachuk said. “My dad scored a lot and I got to see a lot of them when I was younger. He always tells me to be around the net and you’ll score goals.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.