The question was supposed to be rhetorical, but a 12-year-old completely spoiled the plan. “Who here doesn’t want to go to college?” the presenter asked. A crowd of middle school–aged students and their parents were gathered at one of the most renowned high schools in St. Louis, home to a sparkling 100-per cent college attendance rate. The assumption was that post-secondary education figured as the future plan for every kid who’d turned up. Then, one child-sized hand shot up in the air.
It belonged to Matthew Tkachuk, the fifth-grader with strawberry-blond hair whose mother, Chantal, turned a deeper shade of red as she watched her son proudly declare to a room of mostly strangers that he had no interest in college. Tkachuk doesn’t remember if he told them all that he wanted to be in the NHL instead, but that’s definitely what he was thinking.
As he tells this story today, now 21 years old and sitting at his stall in the middle of the Calgary Flames dressing room, Tkachuk smiles between sips of a smoothie. Today’s blend is just “okay,” No. 19 admits. He was mixing up the usual for himself and Johnny Gaudreau, but then Noah Hanafin jumped in and “that throws everything off.” It’s a bit heavy on almond milk. The Flames just left the ice after an off-day practice, and there’s a white towel draped around Tkachuk’s neck. His slightly curly hair is still wet with sweat and his feet are in flip flops. The mouth guard he’s constantly chewing on is now in its case.
Tkachuk remembers the conversation that ensued after he fired his hand up during that presentation nine years ago, when his mom told him in no uncertain terms: College is happening. “Well,” says the graduate of Pioneer High School (“Pie High” to him and his buddies), “I ended up playing in the NHL when I was 18, so I wasn’t wrong.”
Yes, Tkachuk’s prediction was spot on. And, as you can probably imagine, the son of one of the greatest American-born NHLers in history was preparing for this life even before that. He knew the name and team of nearly every player in the NHL when he was a toddler. He stood and swayed to the national anthem as he play-acted being a pro starting from age three, just before either Keith or Chantal dropped the puck on a mini-stick game. He spent hours in NHL dressing rooms during Keith’s playing days, meeting players and seeing firsthand what it is to be a pro. Not for a second did he have designs on any other career.
But solid hockey genes — a dad who belongs to the NHL’s 500-goals club, plus a few NHLer cousins — have very little, and maybe even nothing, to do with what makes Tkachuk one of the most compelling players heading into this post-season. Check out his resumé and one thing becomes crystal clear: The left winger is made for big moments. Throwing his hand up as a fifth grader is just one example of how Keith and Chantal’s eldest has been making huge statements virtually his entire life, though most of them have actually come on ice. And with his ideal-for-the-playoffs skillset — Tkachuk tied for second on the Flames in goals (34), was right up there in penalty minutes (62), and finished among the league’s elite when it comes to drawing penalties — he is poised to make his biggest bang of all with the team that won the Western Conference. “I noticed it when he was a rookie — and this is not usual for young guys,” linemate Mikael Backlund points out. “He wants to be that difference-maker, that game-winner. And he had that confidence from a young age to know he could be.”
Brash, skilled and by all accounts very annoying to play against, Tkachuk is determined to make sure his biggest moment is still ahead, and there’s plenty of evidence to prove he can rise to the occasion when the stakes are highest.
There were a lot of Tkachuks in Buffalo for the bantam-aged national championships seven years ago. Chantal was in the stands with a handful of other family members, Keith was behind the bench with the AAA St. Louis Blues, and Matthew was on the ice, up against a team from Long Island in the tournament’s quarterfinal. When the game got to overtime, Keith’s mom couldn’t bear to watch, so she didn’t: She left her seat in the rink. But this one was far from over. The game went to double-overtime, and then, triple.
Tkachuk was already a well-known top prospect in minor-hockey circles, already on the radar of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (USNTDP), already an elite power forward. The season after that bantam-aged national championship bid, he’d put up 82 points in 41 games with the AAA Blues U-16s, a team that captured the league title, head coach Bill Mermis says, “largely because he’s that kind of kid that, when it’s time to get it done, he doesn’t think — he steps forward and he makes it happen.”
That wasn’t always the case, though.
If you go way back to the very beginning, not a whole lot was happening on the ice for young Tkachuk. Nobody in the family really remembers his first goal, because his first real game was much funnier. It happened in St. Louis, he was three years old, and it was highly-anticipated. The Tkachuk family — which by then included one-year-old Brady, though younger sister, Taryn, was not yet in the picture — had just moved from Arizona because Keith had been traded. Back in Scottsdale, Tkachuk had learned to skate, “and we were thinking he was a pretty good skater,” Chantal recalls, “so we thought, ‘We’ll get to St. Louis and we’ll throw him on a team.’”
Keith’s Blues teammate, Doug Weight, even showed up with his family in tow to see that first game. “I remember we were all so excited,” Chantal says. Then she breaks into laughter. The team was called the Rockets. Young Matthew, it turns out, was quite the opposite.
“He was so bad,” Chantal says. “He was the worst player on the team by far. It was funny because I think some of the parents thought, ‘Oh, Keith Tkachuk’s son is on our team,’ thinking that he was going to be really good. And he was really, really bad.”
There wasn’t a moment that Tkachuk turned a corner and suddenly got really, really good — it was a gradual progression. He credits coaching for his development in the minor system in St. Louis, where a slew of former Blues — including his dad, Al MacInnis and Jeff Brown — stuck around to help lead the next generation. “I think it all had to do with the way we were developing,” Tkachuk says. “Just from talking to guys on other teams, I realized we were one of the first teams to have practices strictly based on skills, a lot of small-area stuff. The former Blues players thought that would be best for developing us, and it worked.”
Keith may have been behind the bench during that Bantam-aged national quarterfinal, but he doesn’t remember how his son scored the game-winner in triple-overtime. He’s pretty sure it was a typical front-of-the-net, bang-it-home scenario. Though the Blues went on to lose in the championship game, that quarterfinal stands out today not only as Tkachuk’s biggest moment in minor hockey, but also as a sign of his ability to deliver in those pressure situations.
Luke Kunin was Tkachuk’s teammate from those lacklustre toddler years on, and they were linemates as they got older. Kunin doesn’t remember exactly how that triple-overtime goal went in, either, though he was on the ice for it and probably involved somehow. “I just remember his celebration,” the Minnesota Wild forward says. “He had a lot of family there and he did this salute to his family — it was pretty funny.
“I remember that, and I remember that he was great that game. It was good to have him lead us to that win. You know what? I think he scored a couple goals that game.”
Tkachuk did: He had a hat trick in a 5–4 win.
By the time Team USA arrived in Switzerland for the 2015 U-18 world championships, their No. 1 line was already established as one of the best 17-year-old trios in hockey. With the USNTDP, Tkachuk, Auston Matthews and Jack Roslovic had played together the entire season and part of the previous year, helping Team USA win the world U-17 championship. “We were paired up overseas,” Roslovic remembers. “They put us together, we had a good game and strung together a couple more really good games. When you do that, you can gain the coach’s trust a little bit. You get the chemistry and the bond, and I think we already had it off the ice.”
Roslovic is from Columbus, Ohio, but he had heard all about Tkachuk and played against him a handful of times before the two 16-year-olds moved to Ann Arbor and became teammates with the USNTDP. “He was a big name, obviously, in St. Louis — I don’t think we ever did too well against him,” says Roslovic, now a forward for the Winnipeg Jets. “He had a lot of talent and a lot of work ethic to go with it. I think he knew that he could do something with it. You look at him now, and I’d seen that coming. A lot of people saw that success coming. He was the same player he is now back then, so when I got to Ann Arbor and I got to play with him, that made it all more fun.”
Playing against him, on the other hand, is not so fun. “He’s definitely a pest and an agitator,” Roslovic says.
Flames teammate Sam Bennett, who paces Calgary with a very healthy lead in penalty minutes, counts Tkachuk among his best friends, and they’ve spent the past couple of all-star breaks together, most recently in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. But, says Bennett, “if I played against him, I’d definitely try and fight him.”
Backlund adds, with a laugh: “Since I started playing with him, I’ve definitely been in more scrums than I was before I played with him.”
Tkachuk takes a ‘Who, me?’ approach to his reputation. The kid who’s been branded the emotional leader of this team is laid back off the ice, so you’ll only see that emotion when he’s in competition mode. As proof, he points out: “I’ve only cried twice in my life watching a movie.” Marley and Me made him tear up (he doesn’t have a dog, but he likes dogs, and he gets sad, he says, “when grown-up people cry”), and so did Dear John, a romantic drama based on a novel.
Out on the ice, Tkachuk swears he doesn’t notice he’s ruffling feathers, probably since he’s played the same way much of his life. “I’ve never been an agitator,” he says, earnestly, which is funny considering that earlier this season, he basically single-handedly reignited the Battle of Alberta — he tried to hit Connor McDavid (that’s a no-no) and then, after jawing with Zack Kassian most of the game, he ate a few Kassian punches, covered his head for protection and drew 26 penalty minutes.
Tkachuk is averaging more than a penalty minute per game himself in his NHL career, and Drew Doughty hasn’t been shy about his thoughts on the player whose elbow cost the Kings defender a few teeth last season (Doughty really isn’t a fan). “I’ve been one of those guys that just plays hard and likes to score goals and plays a little bit chippy at times,” Tkachuk offers by way of explaining the ire he sometimes draws. “I think that, well … people don’t like that.”
Kunin, who’s known the young winger’s game longer than anyone not named Tkachuk, says that’s always been his friend’s style. “He likes to get under people’s skin, and a lot of the way he does that is with his skill,” Kunin says. “As far as his skill set goes, it’s off the charts. The way he handles the puck, the vision, the plays he can make are almost second to none.”
It was in his second season year with the USNTDP that Tkachuk really began to believe the NHL was a legitimate possibility. “I had probably my breakout year offensively and production-wise and just becoming a way better overall player,” he says of that 2014–15 campaign, when he put up 51 goals and 128 points in 89 games.
No assist was bigger than one he tallied at the 2015 U-18 World Championship, in the final. Finland got on the board first, just 17 seconds in: Sebastian Aho scored on a two-on-one. At the 11:19 mark of the third, the Americans finally evened things up. “Matty made a nice no-look, between-the-legs pass to me in the slot, and I scored,” Roslovic says, of the game-tying goal. “It was no-look, but I definitely anticipated getting the puck. When I was playing with those two guys, it’s kind of just find a spot to score and they’ll get it to you.”
The Americans outshot Finland 62-20 and won on an overtime goal from Colin White. Tkachuk finished with a tournament-leading 10 assists, and was named one of Team USA’s top players, along with Matthews and White.
“It’s a true gift to have, an attribute that teams love, to really come out when the pressure is on,” Roslovic says. “That’s why Matty’s so effective.”
Tkachuk doesn’t fully remember the biggest goal of his junior career, because he says he blacked out shortly after he saw that 2016 Memorial Cup game-winner hit the twine, in overtime. (He also fell while celebrating.)
The play started on a breakout from London’s end, and Tkachuk made a little toe drag and fired the puck on net, with a screen provided by a Ryoun-Noranda Huskies defender and his London Knights teammate Christian Dvorak. Tkachuk had two goals in the 3–2 victory. “What a way to end the season,” he says, grinning. And what a way to end his junior career.
Tkachuk cracked the Flames lineup later that year, but his post-season moment in the NHL is yet to come. He made his playoffs debut as a rookie who finished seventh in Calder Trophy voting in 2016–17, with 48 points in 76 games, and the Flames got swept by Anaheim in the first round.
He’s been waiting for a do-over ever since. “I feel like we could’ve won every single game that we played,” Tkachuk says of that 2017 series. “That’s playoffs, and that’s what I learned from it. You have a chance to win a game and one win in the playoffs can change around a whole series — it’s all about momentum. I felt like I did learn a lot and I definitely can’t wait to get back there.”
It was right around this time a year ago that Tkachuk watched as the Flames’ playoff hopes disappeared. In March of 2018, he tripped over Islanders forward Mathew Barzal, collided with the boards and spent the rest of the season on the shelf with a concussion. Chantal flew up to Calgary to spend a week with her son while he was recovering. “He was very — I don’t want to use the word ‘depressed,’ but he was very down in the dumps,” she says. “Obviously he was disappointed that he couldn’t contribute and try to help the team, and then just seeing them go through that freefall towards the end of the season and then miss the playoffs, it was heartbreaking. It was really hard for him to sit back and watch. He wants to be there for his team in important moments, and he couldn’t be.”
Tkachuk shakes his head thinking back to all those games he missed. “It was honestly the worst experience of my life so far,” he says. “That sense that you’re helpless and you want to be out there playing and you don’t have any control over the situation. You’re watching games on TV. It wasn’t fun. That sucked.”
A lot of players say they don’t watch the playoffs once they’re out, but Tkachuk tuned in every chance he could. “I actually think when people say they don’t watch playoffs, they’re lying,” he says. “The round that sucked watching last year was the first round, just because there’s so many teams and you’re like, ‘We’re better than this team, we’re better than that team,’ you know what I mean? You’re thinking, ‘How? These guys are about to win a playoff series and we beat them a couple times this season.’
“And the thing that’s tough about watching playoffs from home is you think about games in October, November, December — the games you could’ve won but you gave away, you didn’t even get a point. At the end of the year, you’re three points out where you could be tied. You look at stuff like that. It’s awful.”
This competitive spirit is among the attributes that have most impressed Brad Treliving about the sixth-overall pick with the “high-end hockey brain,” as the Flames GM puts it. “For a young guy, and I always say this is a big step: He feels very responsible for wins and losses. Sometimes it takes guys years to get to that stage. They’re all worried, they all want to win, right? But he takes it upon himself to be responsible for the team’s success, and he’s done that from the start,” Treliving says. “When he first came in, the way he conducted himself around his teammates, around coaches, around staff, was like a 28-year-old, 10-year veteran, not an 18-year-old kid.”
That’s part of the reason why, at age 20, Tkachuk had an ‘A’ sewn onto his jersey — he splits alternate captain duties with Backlund. He’ll also likely become the highest-paid Flames player in franchise history at some point this summer, once his entry-level contract expires.
While they opened March with four straight losses, it was a heck of a lot better than the same time last year for the Flames and Tkachuk. On the 10th, Tkachuk scored his first career NHL hat trick in a win over Vegas — he was 120 days younger than his dad was when Keith had his first three-goal night in the NHL. On the 15th, he had five points in a 5–1 win against the Rangers. And on St. Patrick’s Day, the Flames became the first team in the Western Conference to earn a playoff berth.
Calgary is looking to win a round in the post-season for just the second time since the team last reached the Stanley Cup Final, in 2004. “We’re capable of going into any game and being able to beat anybody. No matter what building it is, no matter what the score is in the game, we can come back and win,” Tkachuk says. “We showed that this year – we can hold leads against good teams, play great against top teams. We’re right there.”
Tkachuk believes the best is yet to come. Earlier this season, he became the second-youngest Flames player in history to reach the 100-game mark. He’s now rolling at just under a point-per-game clip. “I expect I can play better,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I know I have a lot more in the tank and a lot more in me, being my third season, getting to know things a little bit better.
“Honestly, our team hasn’t even reached what our potential is,” he adds. “It’s fun to think about how good we can be.”
And who would doubt the kid who, at age 12, threw up his hand during that high-school presentation, because he believed he’d be here one day, that college just wasn’t in the cards? “It was one of the most embarrassing mom moments of my life,” Chantal says, laughing. “But he’s always been single-minded.”
'Do it for the 16 who can’t': The first year after the Humboldt crash
On April 6, 2018, the Humboldt bus crash claimed 16 lives and shook an entire country. This is the story of the year since the tragedy through the eyes of three Broncos.