In a year in which he tested positive for COVID-19, fought the effects of a concussion, suffered another premature playoff exit and stood squarely in the middle of several controversies, Matthew Tkachuk figures the NHL has come up with the perfect way for him to move forward:
Nine or 10 Battles of Alberta.
The man who single-handedly re-ignited the provincial punch-up with a series of targeted blasts on Zack Kassian last season figures a 56-game slate in the all-Canadian division will be a ratings bonanza for the game.
“How great will that be for hockey?” smiled the Flames’ future captain, who is quarantining in his Calgary apartment after returning to the city late last week.
“Those games get a lot of traction. Even people who don’t know much about hockey have come up to me a lot and asked about our games against Edmonton. I can’t believe how many people in St. Louis I ran into wanted to talk about it. That’s the first thing they always ask me about -- what those games are like to play in. The Battle of Alberta has officially gone outside this province -- not only in Canada but the rest of the U.S. The common thing they say is it’s must-watch TV.”
Tkachuk will undoubtedly be one of the central figures in an all-Canadian division where he is sure to solidify himself as one of the most hated players in six other postal codes.
The Flames’ leading agitator/scorer has already done well to infuriate everyone in northern Alberta and the west coast, not to mention Manitoba where his hit early in a play-in series against Winnipeg knocked Jets star Mark Scheifele out of the series with a leg injury.
Of all the things Tkachuk had to deal with in this, the strangest of off-seasons, fallout from that hit wasn’t one of them.
“We texted a couple times to see how things were going and he knows it was a complete accident,” Tkachuk said of the awkward collision with Scheifele, one of his regular off-season training partners.
“It was an unfortunate outcome of a hard-fought playoff series and hard-fought start to the game, and you never want to see that happen. If you ask anybody, except for probably one person, they know it was a complete accident. He knows me as an individual. He’s a terrific person and one of my favourite players to watch. I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
In vintage form already, there’s that shot he’s so good at delivering.
The unnamed doubter he was singling out is Jets coach Paul Maurice who labeled the hit dirty and intentional, which made for an interesting exchange between the two in the bubble a few days later.
Tkachuk told the Cam & Strick podcast several months ago he opened a hotel door for Maurice and the coach wouldn’t look the player in the eye. Frosty, like the reception he’s sure to get in every city, albeit without fans to stoke the fire from his match play.
“From what I remember we were in the middle of a playoff series, so there wasn’t much conversation going from team to team,” he laughed.
Tkachuk spent the off-season in St. Louis where he first dealt with the aftermath of a concussion that knocked him out of the Flames’ second-round series early against Dallas.
One week after the Flames season ended he was cleared medically, adding to the frustration of yet-another early playoff exit for a team that coughed up a series they were 12 seconds away from leading 3-1.
It was all part of a forgettable year for Tkachuk, who revealed publicly for the first time he tested positive for COVID-19 just prior to the NHL’s return to play for the post-season.
“A big [spike] hit St. Louis in mid-to-late June,” Tkachuk told Sportsnet.ca. “I didn’t feel myself for a couple days, but nothing crazy. I was a little under the weather.
“It affects everybody differently. I took two weeks off in my house and came up right in time for camp. No residual effects at all.”
Tkachuk said he rarely speaks about getting the virus that many people he knows have contracted.
“It was just a weird time,” he said.
“My heart goes out to a lot of the lives that are affected -- from those getting it, to some of these businesses that are being affected. It’s so sad. I hope they can recover from this and we can get things back to normal again as soon as possible.”
The step towards normalcy inched closer Sunday when the NHL and the Player’s Association announced it had come to terms on the shortened schedule that will keep him and his teammates playing Canadian teams for the entire regular season. Camps opens for the Flames at the Saddledome Jan. 3, with the regular season slated to start Jan. 13.
“My brother and I were talking about that, playing each other and seeing each other more, which would be cool,” said Tkachuk of younger brother Brady of the Ottawa Senators.
“There are a lot of good teams in that division and great players. I don’t think there’s much separating teams -- a lot of star-studded teams. It will be great for the game in these unprecedented times. Sign me up.”