CHICAGO – There might be tears during a special ceremony at home in St. Louis on Friday, but Keith Tkachuk didn't shed any on Wednesday night at the United Center after it was announced that he would retire at season's end.
Tkachuk, who sat out St. Louis' game against the host Blackhawks with a lower-body injury, made his way through the press box for interviews between periods with a smile on his face and a hand extended to familiar faces there to congratulate him.
After 19 seasons in the National Hockey League, Tkachuk has decided that his body has taken enough of a pounding as one of his era's toughest power forwards.
"It's been a tough year with my health, so it's definitely the right decision to step away after this season," he said. "It's always hard. I played a lot of years and cherish every moment."
His proudest accomplishment, he said, isn't any of the impressive statistics that he's accrued over his career. It's not the 1,200 regular season games played, the 1,063 points on 538 goals and 525 assists or the 2,219 minutes spent in the penalty box.
"The thing I'm most proud of is the fact I'm retiring as a St. Louis Blue," said Tkachuk, a four-time Olympian and silver medalist who came into the League with Winnipeg and played for the Blues for nine seasons. "St. Louis is a great place to play and live. It's been a great run playing for the Blues."
Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg remembers watching Tkachuk as a youngster.
"He's an amazing player," Versteeg said. "He was actually my old man's favorite power forward when I was growing up. He's a guy who really helped solidify that position. He's done so much for many organizations in the League. I send my best to him because he's been such a great player in the League."
News of Tkachuk's retirement spread quickly through the press box, and Tkachuk made his way through interviews on TV, radio and with writers. He said that after consulting with his family he knew it was time to call it quits. He has three children whom he'd like to spend more time with, including sons Matthew, 12, and Brady, 10, who both play junior hockey in St. Louis.
"My kids are taking it hard, especially my two boys," Tkachuk said. "My daughter Tayrn is only 6, so I don't think she really understands it all just yet. But the boys have been around the rink long enough that they're a little sad. But now I'll get some more time to spend with them and help them along the way."
Tkachuk, who was drafted by Winnipeg in 1990 and broke into the League with the Jets in 1991, has played in 66 games this season. He has 13 goals and 17 assists for 30 points. He's also spent 56 minutes in the penalty box. It's the time spent in the press box because of bumps and bruises that drove him to this decision.
He said that he will still spend a lot of time around hockey, coaching his boys, but, "I just won't be getting banged around by 6-foot-5 guys anymore."
Ed Olczyk remembers the days when Tkachuk was a young buck instigating most of the collisions. Olczyk, now a TV analyst, played with Tkachuk for three full seasons in Winnipeg. He's impressed at how far the guy they call "Walt" has come since his rookie season.
"He came in raw and just evolved into a great player," Olczyk said. "He was the prototypical power forward. He could score. He could hit. He wasn't afraid to run you into the ditch. He was a great pro. He's one of the greatest American-born players to play the game."
Tkachuk remembers those days well, and for the past couple of seasons he's tried to impart his own wisdom on the Blues' young players like Olczyk did for him.
"You just try to be the best teammate possible," said Tkachuk, who will be honored after St. Louis' final home game of the season on Friday night. "I was lucky to have some guys who affected me in a positive way, so you just try to help guys be comfortable and learn the right way."
As for his legacy?
He has thought about it and in his mind it's more about things that don't show up in box scores.
"I just hope I left a positive influence on my teammates and people I've met along the way, especially with the team we have right now," Tkachuk said. "I owe the game of hockey everything. The game doesn't owe me anything. I've been lucky to play in the National Hockey League and I'll never forget it."