CALGARY – Neil Sheehy doesn’t think Matthew Tkachuk should have to fight anyone when the Battle of Alberta resumes Wednesday.
“I think if a guy is running around, being an idiot and throwing cheap shots, he definitely has to answer the bell,” said the former Flames agitator about the incidents that recently reinvigorated the provincial rivalry.
“But this wasn’t a cheap shot (on Zack Kassian). It was a good hit. I thought Tkachuk went easy on him, and I think that’s scary because it was a big hit.
“I understand Kassian wants to fight, but if the game is on the line, if I’m Tkachuk, I’m not fighting. I think the only way Tkachuk would ever fight him is if his team is going to gain an edge from it.”
Sheehy thinks that day will eventually come.
“That’s the history of the battle of Alberta – paybacks happen,” said Sheehy, who now lives in Minnesota.
“What did Edmonton’s coach say after the game? – ‘I wish he would have got his number.’ What he’s saying is, ‘we don’t want anything to cost our team.’ If a game gets out of hand a coach can say, ‘what was that number again?’
“If Edmonton or the Flames got up four or five goals you knew the nonsense was going to start. That’s when paybacks happen.”
Sheehy’s mindset will come as no surprise to Albertans who watched him poke and prod his way through the provincial rivalry in the 80s when he was as villainous as they came.
There were few people Oilers fans hated more than “The Butcher of Harvard” who made a career out of targeting Wayne Gretzky and then refusing to punch back when attacked by Oilers teammates like Dave Semenko, Kevin McClelland or Don Jackson.
Sound vaguely familiar?
Now armed with a law degree and a stable of clients as an NHL player agent, Sheehy was a big, tough, marginal defenceman who was smart enough to understand he could play a more prominent role if he could effectively drive the other team to distraction. So, while he could certainly fight with the best of ’em, he delighted in stirring things up and drawing penalties from enraged combatants.
In the heat of the provincial wars he was a big part of, he was happy to take a punch or two in the face if it meant the Flames vaunted power play could then exact their version of revenge.
Capable of fighting anyone, the man who racked up 271 penalty minutes in 1985-86 was never shy to cover up after poking a bear that came back at him with gloves dropped.
“People try to goad you in, and call you a turtle,” he chuckled.
“I think you’re anything but when you put a hit on a guy like that. The reality is there’s no reason for (Tkachuk) to fight. He annihilated Kassian – that gets your bench excited. Why would you fight?
“Matthew Tkachuk is a tough customer. It has nothing to do with being a turtle. It’s about winning hockey games. Fighting was not going to help the Calgary Flames that night. That’s the way you have to look at it.”
As a refresher, Kassian responded to a pair of hellacious hits on him during a Jan. 11 game by administering a beating on Tkachuk who covered up, leaving Kassian with a double minor and misconduct. While Kassian served his sentence, the Flames scored the game-winning goal. Trash talk from both players followed, as has nation-wide debate and a two-game suspension for Kassian he has since served.
Making teams pay for taking penalties was a strategy that worked well for the Flames in the 80s.
Those days also included the importance of having a long memory, which is something Kassian has since vowed to employ.
The league’s chief disciplinarian, George Parros, will be in attendance at Wednesday’s rematch in Edmonton, which may very well postpone payback.
Don’t forget, the two teams are tied in the standings.
The question is whether Tkachuk will feel the need to try putting the controversy behind him by fighting Kassian or another Oiler in the first five minutes, down the road, or ever.
After all, Tkachuk has fought seven times as an NHLer, including bouts with Ryan Kesler, Brooks Orpik and Brayden McNabb.
Kassian is nine pounds heavier, an inch taller and helped keep his NHL career alive by fighting 33 times.
A dangerous proposition for the six-foot-two, 202-pound Tkachuk, whose teammates Milan Lucic and Zac Rinaldo also have designs on paying Kassian back for rag-dolling the man who was runner-up as MVP of this weekend’s all-star tourney.
“If Edmonton goes up two or three then maybe you oblige him,” said Sheehy.
“Matthew Tkachuk is one skilled and one tough hockey player and I’m not worried about him handling himself.”
Does Sheehy see any of himself in Tkachuk, who has led the league in drawing teams into penalties since he joined the NHL in 2016.
“I’d hate to have him compared to me – he’s a much better hockey player than I ever was,” laughed Sheehy.
“You want him on the ice – he made a great play and a great decision. That’s going to get the blood boiling, that hit. I loved that. I played hard, and was somebody the other team wanted to kill, but I never took cheap shots.” Tkachuk’s hits were deemed legal by the league, but have been criticized as predatory by many former players.
Either way, by clearly targeting Zassian, Tkachuk has injected new life into a matchup that has had the hockey world abuzz the last few weeks.
“You have to have a personality in the battle – someone wearing the black hat,” said Sheehy.
“That’s what gets the emotion going. I loved going into Northlands and having the whole place boo you. I thrived on it.”
So, apparently, does Tkachuk.
“They both have a way of getting under an opponent’s skin,” said former Flame Jim Peplinski, comparing the two.
“The difference, of course, is you could ignore Neil and still win. You can’t ignore Matthew and win.”
Grant Fuhr had similar thoughts.
“I think there are some definite similarities between the two,” said the Oilers Hall of Fame netminder.
“He also reminds me a lot of a mix between Kenny Linseman and Esa Tikkanen. I love a little fire to the battle – it’s what makes the battle great. (Tkachuk) is a great addition to it.”
Sheehy obviously agrees.
“If you’re an Edmonton fan you don’t like the hit, and Calgary fans are jumping up and down,” he said.
“That’s what the battles are born from. It’s when the players learn about the tale of the two cities, and history, and embrace it, when the battle is created.”