It started with an elbow.
Early in a March 2017 matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and Calgary Flames, then-rookie Matthew Tkachuk sent defenceman Drew Doughty to the ice with an elbow to the face.
The incident resulted in a two-game suspension for Tkachuk, and sparked a rivalry between a decorated NHL veteran at the top of his game and a feisty rookie just finding his footing in the league and taking his first steps as one of the game’s best pests.
As unlikely as it may have been to start, it is in so many ways the perfect player rivalry, really: two highly-skilled Pacific Division players unafraid to stir the pot and more than capable of calling their shots — and dishing ’em out, too.
Looking around the league, there aren’t a lot of true player-versus-player rivalries today, which explains our love affair with this one. Ryan Reaves and Evander Kane make every meeting between the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights a lot more interesting, while Brad Marchand and Tom Wilson pride themselves on getting under the skin of just about everyone who goes up against them — especially if they’re sporting a certain blue-and-white sweater.
“To be honest, I think that stuff is fun for the game – people stay interested in that kind of rivalry,” Reaves said back in October, via Sportsnet’s Eric Francis. “You can ask Evander, but I’m sure he likes the little rivalry we have, too. I definitely enjoy it. I think some healthy hatred is good for any sport.”
Doughty and Tkachuk have met 11 times since the elbow that started it all, including three times this season as we head into the fourth and final matchup of 2019-20 Wednesday night. And while not every meeting over the past few years has been notable, the ones that were have kept us wanting more.
Here’s a timeline of the war of words — and the jabs, hits, penalties and obscenities — that have made this head-to-head so much fun to watch.
March 19, 2017: “He’s a pretty dirty player, that kid.”
While the elbow sparked the dislike, Doughty’s post-game interview following that game brought the fire:
“He’s a pretty dirty player, that kid,” Doughty told Kings insider Jon Rosen, also shedding a little light on what was, at that point, a budding mutual dislike between the two. “To be a rookie and play like that is a little surprising.”
The Flames issued a statement accepting the suspension, but a media availability following the two-game ban showed Tkachuk wasn’t exactly remorseful for his actions. He doubled down on his sandpaper playing style, telling reporters upon his return from suspension, “I’m not changing my game at all.”
Fans hungry for another round of this budding rivalry had to wait just 10 days for their next dose… and boy, was it a big one.
March 29, 2017: “I expected more from him, honestly.”
Tkachuk got this one started a day early with a few pre-game chirps (and maybe a little compliment buried in there?) during practice a day before the game:
“I expected more from him, honestly, than to go right to the media and start complaining after a loss,” Tkachuk told Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson the day before the grudge match, responding to Doughty calling him a dirty player. “But he’s a good player. He’s a good enough player where he doesn’t have to worry about any of that stuff. He’s a skilled guy and everything like that, and he’s won a couple of Cups.”
“(Doughty) is a good player, so I don’t think his focus will be too much on me,” Tkachuk said. “My focus isn’t on him. My focus is on the playoffs.”
The game that followed featured just about everything you could ask of a good old fashioned grudge match — tensions were high, warmup words were exchanged, gloves were dropped early and often, and penalty minutes were doled out by the dozens. The second period saw Tkachuk take a dangerous run at Doughty, lining the rearguard up for an open-ice hit that Doughty just barely managed to dodge:
“There was good energy in the building,” Tkachuk said after the game, a 4-1 loss that saw the Flames fizzled out in the third. “We obviously wanted to be better and, you know, you tip your hat to them. They played good tonight. [The elbow] is something that happened in the past, it’s done with and you move forward.”
Ah, but it was really only just the beginning…
Oct. 11, 2017: [just a bunch of expletives]
Feelings didn’t exactly cool off over the off-season. In the first Flames-Kings matchup of 2019-20, Tkachuk found himself in the penalty box after a late-game skirmish — that actually didn’t involve Doughty — but look who was there to greet him and welcome him to the sin bin:
Jan. 24, 2018: Hate’s a strong word, but…
It took all of 30 seconds for Tkachuk to get his pest on during the teams’ third meeting of the season.
Thorn, meet side:
Doughty didn’t hold back with his post-game comments. When asked if Tkachuk might be the most-hated player in the league, Doughty told Sportsnet’s Eric Francis this:
“I’m pretty sure he might be,” said the Kings defenceman. “I have lots of friends on other teams and they don’t love him either. But whatever, that’s how he plays. All it does is fire guys up and guys take over games when that happens. Like tonight.”
The Kings won this one in overtime, and Doughty was, uh, pretty fired up about silencing the home crowd:
March 25, 2019: “No respect for him, none.”
At this point, almost a full season has passed without any more big blowups between the two. Just a healthy rivalry, eh, Doughty?
From Francis: “Oh no,” Doughty said before the game. “No respect for him, none. I respect everyone else. I’ll never talk to him off the ice.”
“I’m used to it and know how to deal with it,” Doughty added. “He’s entertaining for you guys, but he’s not respected by most of the people in the league, it’s not just me — that’s just a fact.”
Tkachuk challenged those words on the ice, drawing a sneaky slashing penalty against Doughty:
“No reaction, it doesn’t bother me at all — in one ear and out the other with that stuff,” Tkachuk told reporters after the game, when asked his response to Doughty’s pre-game jabs.
“Doesn’t really surprise me or not surprise me — it’s just another day. I’ll sleep like a baby tonight, I’m not worried about that type of stuff, I’ll tell ya’ that.”
Oct. 8, 2019: “Drew Doughty… does not like you.”
New season, same bad blood.
When asked prior to the season for his thoughts on Tkachuk, Doughty described the Flames forward as, “a guy that kinda thinks he’s really good but isn’t.”
Drew Doughty: Still not a big Matthew Tkachuk fan pic.twitter.com/CSN2UHuWEA
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 9, 2019
In the wise words of Hockey Night in Canada’s Scott Oake, when talking to Tkachuk during an After Hours interview on Hockey Night in Canada following the Flames’ game against the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 5: “Drew Doughty… does not like you.”
Tkachuk told Oake it “goes right in one ear, out the other. I’m really looking forward to Tuesday’s game.”
(So were we.)
Oake: “But has it ever crossed your mind that maybe you should show a Norris Trophy winner and a Stanley Cup champion more respect?”
Tkachuk: “I show Gio respect, he’s a Norris Trophy winner.”
Doughty responded the next day:
“We both know who the better player is, so, if he wants to compliment me first I’ll give him one back,” Doughty told reporters before the Oct. 8 matchup.
As much as the two players have both, at times, attempted to put the war of words to rest, it’s clear they both thrive off this stuff — and we’re all the better for it.
“I’ve had individual rivalries with guys on every team,” Doughty told reporters.
“You’ve got to pick someone on that team that gets you up for a game. If I come into a barn and don’t feel I have a rivalry with a team or with any player — like, say we go into Florida or something — I’m not the same player. I need to kind of have that to get myself going. If I’m not emotionally invested I’m not going to play well — that’s the bottom line.”
With all eyes on Doughty and Tkachuk come game time, the two did not disappoint. Tkachuk tied the game late with a gorgeous goal and Doughty one-upped his nemesis with the overtime winner. His celebration that followed was… quite something:
“As much as I love getting booed every time I touch the puck, you kind of want to shove it in their faces,” Doughty said after the game.
Doughty also said he’s looking to close the book on this head-to-head.
“I want to put that to rest — it’s over,” said Doughty.
Meanwhile, in the Flames’ dressing room:
“I’m excited for Round 2 in two weeks in L.A,” said Tkachuk.
Which brings us to Round 2 of 2019-20…
Oct. 19, 2019: Game on, again.
After so much build up leading up to the game — even Doughty’s mom got involved (“She was not happy with me, especially after the celebration there,” Doughty said of his mom’s reaction to the events of Oct. 8.) — all was quiet on the rivalry front for most of this game.
Until midway through the final frame, when all hell broke loose.
With the Kings up 4-0, Tkachuk was skating the puck into Doughty’s territory when the Kings defenceman went low on Tkachuk. It wasn’t a hard hit, but it was enough to knock the Flames forward off his feet and bring Doughty down with him. Tkachuk then cross-checked Doughty as he tried to get back on his feet, leading to a full-on line brawl as players from both sides piled on. Five penalties were dished out, with Tkachuk taking three (tripping, roughing and a game misconduct) and Doughty leaving the scuffle scot-free and smiling.
Doughty joined After Hours following the game, a 4-1 win to go 2-0 on the season series versus Calgary, telling Scott Oake that the win was what mattered — and the rivalry is “just whatever.”
“When it comes to me and him, it’s just whatever. We won the game that’s all that matters. We gotta catch them in the standings, so right now they kind of still have bragging rights even though we spanked them tonight. But yeah, whatever,” Doughty said.
“I thought it was pretty quiet until that last play, I’m not going to not hit him, he’s right there with the puck. Make a hockey play. He waits till the whistle goes and kind of starts some stuff. It’s just the way she goes. We’re both just trying to win games. The game was out of hand, so kinda expected that to happen,” he said.
Dec. 7, 2019: Round 3
After October’s fireworks, this game was pretty tame in terms of any Doughty-Tkachuk drama. Perhaps it’s a rivalry that’s run its course.
Perhaps we’ll find out in Round 4 Wednesday night.