Some families are seemingly born to play hockey. In Canada, the name “Sutter” is synonymous with the sport; six brothers made it to the NHL and now the next generation of the family is carrying on in the footsteps of its antecedents.
Brady Tkachuk is the latest scion of an American family with a legacy almost as rich.
Brady’s father, Keith, is of course famous for playing 1,200 games in the NHL, leading the league in goals and helping Team USA to a gold medal at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. Brady’s older brother, Matthew, is currently laying waste to the OHL as part of the London Knights.
But the family line isn’t limited to the Tkachuks. The Tkachuks are cousins to the Fitzgeralds, a family which includes Tom (a veteran of 1,000 NHL games), Scott (a scout with Boston) and Tom’s sons Casey and Ryan, both of whom are quality young players. Another set of cousins are the Hayes: Jimmy, who scored 19 goals with Florida last season and has been very impressive early for the Bruins, and Kevin, a first-round pick who put up 45 points as a rookie for the Rangers last year.
Those relationships can bring with them the burden of expectation, the support of a network that has been through it all before, or both. Tkachuk, a cheerful teenager with an easy smile and infectious laugh, emphasizes only the positives of having family support.
“It’s really big,” he said. “It’s always great to have them right behind me, pushing me to be the best that I can be.”
The best Tkachuk can be is something pretty spectacular.
It’s hard not to compare him to his brother Matthew, generally considered a top-five prospect for this summer’s draft. Two years ago, he played in the same U-17 challenge that Brady is currently participating in and did well, scoring four goals and seven points in just six games. Brady’s pace is nearly identical; through five games of the tournament he has two goals and five points on the American team entry, which coach Don Granato calls the fastest he’s ever coached.
For Granato, Tkachuk’s abilities go well beyond the skill level he’s already displayed.
“I’m really glad he’s part of our team,” Granato said. “He’s a leader, off the ice, on the ice. On the ice he’s a leader beyond skill; he’s got great skill and great potential but he’s a worker. He brings that every day in practice. He’s full of personality and full of life and that’s fun to be around.”
That combination of skill and work ethic is what makes Tkachuk so effective.
He scored twice in USA’s final preliminary round game, a victory that moved the club to 3-0 on the tournament. Both goals came at point blank range, the first with him firmly in the blue paint, battering the puck past the goalie, and the second with him somehow finding clear ice in a well-occupied lower slot and ripping a wicked wrist shot past Canadian goaltender Jacob McGrath.
The comparisons to his father are inevitable. An official Hockey Canada release almost consciously echoed his father’s skillset in its description of the younger Tkachuk, calling him a “power forward with skill… intense and competitive” and boasting of a great shot frequently used. And it’s hard not to see it. At an even six feet and 176 pounds, he’s bigger than most of the other players at the tournament, easily strong enough to go to the hard areas of the ice with both a natural affinity for doing so and the skill to cash-in on the opportunities created by the chaos he generates.
But as easy as it is to make those comparisons, that kind of sky-high expectation can lead to disappointment. Tkachuk has experienced that firsthand in this tournament, as he and his unbeaten American teammates were knocked out of contention in their first elimination game, falling to a plucky Swedish group that hadn’t won a single game in the round robin event.
As Granato was at pains to note after the loss, though, this is an event which places at least as much emphasis on development as it does on winning, and from that perspective the bitterness of this disappointment may help make Tkachuk and his confederates better players in the long-term.
“Every moment is a teaching moment,” he said. “This is a great, great tournament. We had the objective to try and win this tournament and that is a clear disappointment, but there is also a larger picture. The experience of this game today is going to be very valuable.”
Team USA proved unable to live up to the expectations they generated with their impressive play early on, but from Granato’s perspective, being under that pressure will help all of them as they continue their careers, whether for individual teams in the AHL and NHL or with American entries in future events.
“There’s a lot of pressure on these young players,” he reflected. “They’ll learn from it and become better because of it.”