Tkachuk, who turned 23 in March, is already regarded as one of the top power forwards in the National Hockey League, a 6’2”, 210-pound left winger who can punish opponents in any number of ways.
Last season he led the Jets in scoring, collecting 41 goals and 81 points. And what makes this accomplishment even more significant is that Tkachuk managed to achieve those totals while also chalking up a whopping 255 penalty minutes. In fact, enforcer Tie Domi was the only Jets player who spent more time in the sin bin (347 minutes) than did Tkachuk.
“The scary thing about Keith is that he’s only going to get better,” says Domi. “He’s still got a lot to learn and (has to) mature more. But he’s going to be a great player for a long time.”
Tkachuk is in his third full season in the NHL. He joined the Jets in February of 1992, after helping the United States to a fourth-place finish at the Olympic Games in Albertville, France. Winnipeg had selected Tkachuk in the first round, 19th overall, of the 1990 Entry Draft.
They call him “Walt”
Tkachuk is not related to former New York Rangers forward Walt Tkaczuk (note the different spelling), who played 14 NHL seasons before retiring in 1981, but that hasn’t prevented his teammates from nicknaming him “Walt.”
There’s another NHL player, however, whom Tkachuk prefers to emulate—Boston Bruins rugged right winger Cam Neely.
“When I was in high school, I watched Cam Neely play,” says Tkachuk, a native of Melrose, MA. “Just by watching him I (knew I) wanted to be like him. I didn’t get to a lot of games, but I watched him on TV all the time.”
Not surprisingly, Tkachuk was a Bruins fan.
“I really liked the Bruins style of banging,” he says. “It was just fun watching the big black and gold bullies. And watching Cam play, he was everything I wanted to be.”
Well, sometimes you get what you want. When Tkachuk broke into the NHL, he too steamrolled his way to a reputation for toughness. “When you first get into the league you want to get some respect (from the opposition) and earn some respect from your teammates,” he reasons. “I had to go out and crash and bang and, when the opportunity was there, get into the odd scuffle.”
Since Tkachuk is as valuable a scorer as he is a physical presence, the Jets would like to see him maintain his aggressiveness while cutting down on his penalty minutes. After all, you can neither score nor bang when you’re in the box.
“He should probably show a little patience sometimes when he gets hit,” says Winnipeg center Thomas Steen. “He likes to retaliate.”
But don’t get Steen wrong for chiding the young winger; he’s a big Tkachuk booster. “He’s still a young guy,” says Steen. “But he’s growing into a Mark Messier-type of player. He’s very hard to stop in front of the net.
“He’ll be a great leader for this team for some time.”
Steen, who is in his 14th NHL season, all with Winnipeg, says the Jets have never had a player like Tkachuk. “He’s a force all over the ice. Even in the defensive zone, he does the job. We’ve had big forwards who were good forecheckers before, but not the type of player Keith is. There aren’t too many guys like him in the league.”
The few names that do come to mind are Neely, Kevin Stevens, Rick Tocchet and Brendan Shanahan. All of whom, like Tkachuk, can strike fear into an opponent’s heart.
“They know when Keith Tkachuk is coming,” notes Steen. “They can hear him coming. He’s like a train.”
The Olympic line
Earlier this season, Tkachuk was playing on a line which looked more like a runaway train. Alongside Russian center Alexei Zhamnov and Finnish right winger Teemu Selanne, this international trio—dubbed The Olympic Line, because each player represented his country at the 1992 Olympics—comprised what was then arguably the NHL’s top line.
“They can all be the best player in the world at their position when they’re playing,” boasts Jets GM (and, until recently, coach) John Paddock. “There’s nothing they don’t have when they want to play. They’ve got a sniper (Selanne), a great playmaking and skilled goal-scoring centerman, and a player who will be one of the best power forwards in the game for the next 10-12 years. They have everything.”
Obviously not a subscriber to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” theory, Paddock broke up the hot-scoring trio in mid-March. When Igor Korolev joined the Jets from St. Louis, he was teamed up with former Russian teammate Zhamnov and left winger Dallas Drake. Nelson Emerson was switched to center with Selanne and Tkachuk.
Paddock said the move wasn’t a message to anyone, just an attempt to spread the wealth. “We (were) just trying to get a little more balance, and trying to get some of our other forwards producing more.”
And it’s hard to argue with the results: Zhamnov soon had a five-goal game against the Kings, while Emerson notched a goal and four assists in another tilt in which Tkachuk registered two shorthanded goals.
As one would expect of a team-oriented captain like Tkachuk, he took the line change in stride. “I think we need a little more balance, and John obviously (thought) that too. I don’t mind.”
Besides, things changed before, and they may well change again. As for The Olympic Line’s brief moments of brilliance, Tkachuk credits his linemates.
“First of all, Alex Zhamnov is just playing tremendous hockey. Anybody can play with him right now and he would make them better. Put any guys with him and they’re going to produce. And Teemu is Teemu. He’s flashy, he’s got that great speed, and he’s collecting goals. Alex is going to set him up every time, and Teemu is going to put them home.”
Even after the big break-up, the trio still found themselves sharing some power play time. Paddock had Zhamnov playing the point while Tkachuk, Selanne and Korolev comprised the forward line.
Zhamnov, who played against Tkachuk in the Olympics, wasn’t going to dwell on the fact that the captain was taken off his line.
“I’m not the coach,” said Zhamnov, who helped the Russians capture the Gold at Albertville. “I don’t think much about it. If the coach thinks we need to play together, we’ll play together. If not, we’ll play on two lines.”
Proud to wear the ‘C’
Tkachuk is one of only a few NHL players who were drafted out of the US high school ranks. After completing his secondary school studies he joined Boston University, but only for one season. After that, he opted to leave school and join the American national team program.
The Jets are obviously delighted Tkachuk turned pro earlier than originally expected.
“He’s got all the skills,” says Selanne. “He’s got power, he can skate and he can score goals. He’s a very important player. I’ve been with the team three years, and it’s been a pleasure playing with him.”
Though some eyebrows were raised when Tkachuk was named Jets captain at the tender age of 21, Selanne says he wasn’t surprised.
“He can win games for the team sometimes just by himself when he’s playing his best hockey,” says Winnipeg’s flying Finn. “And he’s a big leader here. He wants to show all the players that he cares about this team.”
Tkachuk is proud of wearing the C.
“It’s quite an honor,” he says. “It shows a lot of confidence from the coaches in me, and that makes me play a lot better. Being one of the youngest guys (on the team) makes it tough, but I’m getting a lot of help from the (other) guys. The biggest positive I have about being captain is that I can hopefully go out and lead by example on the ice. Inside (the dressing room), it will take care of itself.”
Though Tkachuk is expected to remain the team’s captain for some time, it’s uncertain whether the Jets will still be in Winnipeg. A deadline of May 1 has been established to see if government officials are willing to financially assist the franchise in the construction of a new arena, which Gary Bettman has said is a necessity if Winnipeg is to keep its team. Speculation has the Jets moving south of the border—where Tkachuk will be an All American drawing card—possibly to Minnesota.
“There are a lot of rumors going around, but we don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Tkachuk. “It’s out of our control. You just have to go out and do your best. It’s very important to our lives whether we’re going to stay in the city or not, but we just have to go out and try to win some hockey games.”
If he had a vote, Tkachuk would want the Jets to stay put.
“I love Winnipeg,” he says. “It’s a great town. The fans are great. People are great. But we need a new building to generate some money for the team. That’s something they have to work out, and like I said, it’s out of our control.”
Performance matters now
What is in control of the team’s players is their performance on the ice. Despite Tkachuk’s individual success, Winnipeg has yet to win a playoff series in his time with the club. The Jets didn’t even earn a post-season berth last year, and are in danger of missing the playoffs again.
“If you look around, we’ve got the talent,” says Tkachuk. “We just have to put it together. Whether we’re missing a player or two is not up to me to say. That’s the management’s job. We’re pretty happy with the guys we’ve got. We just have to put it together and work as a team.”
Management did make a few moves at the trading deadline, adding forwards Mike Eastwood (from Toronto) and Ed Olczyk (from the Rangers), and defenseman Greg Brown (from Pittsburgh). Out of the Winnipeg mix are forwards Tie Domi and Mike Eagles, and defenseman Igor Ulanov.
Like other Winnipeg players, defenseman Dave Manson also speaks highly of the club’s captain, ranking him high among the league’s power forwards.
“If not first, he’s second or third,” says Manson. “He’s definitely in the top three. He’s young, he’s a leader and he’s already proven himself in the NHL. He doesn’t take (bull) from anyone, and that’s the bottom line.”
Manson doesn’t agree with the suggestion that Tkachuk would be even more well known if he were playing elsewhere, even though Winnipeg is far from being a major media market.
“If we won the Stanley Cup then he’d get more recognition,” says Manson. “But he’s got a lot of recognition now throughout the league. You ask any other team, and they’ll say they’ve got to stop him.”
Which has so far been about as easy as stopping that runaway train.
This first appeared in the 06/1995 issue of Hockey