As Flames dominate Panthers, fans give Tkachuk mixed welcome upon return to Calgary

Jonathan Huberdeau and Rasmus Andersson each had a goal and an assist, spoiling Matthew Tkachuk's return to Calgary as the Flames defeated the Florida Panthers 6-2.

CALGARY — A few hours before puck drop, Matthew Tkachuk reiterated he’d long ago closed the book on Calgary and the Flames.

Not so fast, said Flames fans who wanted one final chance to thank him for six years of exemplary service and entertainment.

Six minutes into his first game in Calgary since his trade to the Panthers, the Flames paid tribute to Tkachuk with a brief video highlighting his time in town.

It was greeted with a standing ovation that clearly meant plenty to the man the organization drafted sixth overall in 2016.

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“It was obviously nice to see that video,” said Tkachuk, whose appreciation for the moment saw him waving at the crowd, soaking it all in.

“It’s special, obviously. 

“I have lots of fond memories here. It was pretty cool. They kept it going for a while too. It wasn’t just a couple seconds thing and it was over. Nice of them.”

And then, boom, like a Tkachuk reverse hit, the energy shifted. 

On the very next shift Tkachuk was booed as soon as he touched the puck.

A new chapter for his book in Calgary – something he knows deep down he’ll have to get used to.

Oh sure, a few people booed him when he had the puck on the game’s opening shift.

But this time the movement had grown.

“I don’t know, passionate fans here,” said Tkachuk, searching for words when asked about the mostly lighthearted boos that were mixed with laughs from a crowd clearly entertained by the novelty of it all.

Was he surprised by the derision?

“Not really,” he shrugged, somewhat uncomfortable with the questioning.

“I’ve basically seen them do it to multiple guys that used to play here throughout the league. 

“I don’t know, you guys decide that.”

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A polarizing figure in 30 other rinks around the league, the support for Tkachuk was unconditional in Calgary throughout his time as one of the most unique and entertaining players ever to roll through this franchise.

A unicorn who has the ability to turn a game with a hit, a goal, a setup or his mouth, Tkachuk is now officially the opposition.

Still, even the multitude of fans in the stands and on the concourse wearing his no. 19 jersey arrived at the rink Tuesday night unsure how he’d be received.

Or even how they felt.

While none of the crowd’s reactions were unanimous, the general response was equal parts respectful, appropriate and, in the end, whimsical.

Many had a good laugh at the comical, half-hearted boos many felt compelled to deliver after being stunned in the summer by a breakup many fans didn’t see coming.

These weren’t furious boos like the ones reserved for Drew Doughty’s every touch, which is perfect given it was Tkachuk’s targeting of Doughty that prompted such treatment.

Nor were these the kind reserved for Adam Fox, who spurned the Flames after they drafted him.

These one’s said, “um, sorry Matthew, but you know we’ve got to do this.”  

After all, this was all his doing.

The Flames would easily have paid the same $76 million over eight years to keep Tkachuk and make him their captain.

He had other designs.

Thus, there are consequences, which the fans voiced, in their own cheeky way.

Deep down, with the temperature hovering around minus-20 in Calgary Tuesday, surely most fans understand why a player like Tkachuk would exercise his ability to play in a place like Florida.

Exhibiting the leverage he had as one of the game’s most valuable young players, the 24-year-old informed the team he wouldn’t re-sign in Calgary next summer, kickstarting a trade that landed the team four valuable pieces.

Had Flames GM Brad Treliving not made out so well in the swap, the crowd’s response would undoubtedly have taken on a much harsher tone.

Alas, the locals went home happy, as not only did their team hand Tkachuk’s new team a 6-2 setback, they did it with plenty of help from the key return in the deal – Jonathan Huberdeau.

His power play goal was one of three first period strikes for the Flames, who had six players chip in with multiple points in the win.

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Flames starter Dan Vladar made 30 saves, including two tough ones on Tkachuk. 

Despite playing almost 22 minutes – more than any other Panthers’ forward – Tkachuk had a quiet night, appearing on the scoresheet only for his cross-checking penalty on Nikita Zadorov, which drew a roar from the crowd late in the first.

Given the way it turned out, with his team losing for the third straight game, was he simply glad the reunion of sorts was over?

“I was looking forward to this game,” said Tkachuk, who left pointless for just the fourth time in a season in which he has 29 points in 20 games.

“Like I know we talked about earlier, I (didn’t need) this game to close the door on my history here. That wasn’t the case at all. That door was closed a long time ago. 

“It’s always going to be nice coming back here and playing for the rest of my career.”

After the game Tkachuk shared embraces, smiles and plenty of laughs with his former Flames teammates in the hallway outside the dressing rooms.

Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar were simultaneously catching up with their Florida mates as well.

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The respect between them all was on full display during the game too, as Tkachuk followed up an accidental collision with former linemate Elias Lindholm with a rare, on-ice gesture that had him reaching out as play went on to make sure he was okay, and that he knew it was unintentional. 

A kinder, gentler Tkachuk, who does seem to genuinely be focused on being a star, while limiting the hijinks the early part of his career was marked by.

We’ll see.

Either way, you can bet every time Tkachuk rolls through town the focus will revolve around him.

As will the boos.

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