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Tkachuk developed into a top U.S. power forward

Saturday, 12.10.2011 / 9:00 AM / U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

By Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Tkachuk developed into a top U.S. power forward
Very few American-born players have had NHL careers that rival that of the longtime power forward for the Jets, Coyotes and Blues, who is set to enter the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday.
Very few American-born players have had NHL careers that rival that of Keith Tkachuk.

The native of Melrose, Mass., who was nicknamed "Walt" by teammate Eddie Olczyk, finished with 538 goals and 1,065 points, which rank him third and fifth, respectively, all-time among Americans. The forward's rough-and-tumble style led to him amassing 2,219 career penalty minutes, fourth-most among Americans.

Tkachuk's production over his 19 NHL seasons helped him earn a spot in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame along with fellow 2011 class members Gary Suter, Chris Chelios, Ed Snider and Mike "Doc" Emrick. All five will be inducted Monday in Chicago.

During a career spent almost entirely with the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes franchise and the St. Louis Blues, he had nine seasons of at least 30 goals and reached the 40-goal and 50-goal plateau twice. He became the first American to the lead the NHL in goals when he scored 52 with the Coyotes during the 1996-97 season.

Luke Adam
Left wing - career staTs
GOALS: 538 | ASST: 527 | PTS: 1,065
GAMES PLAYED: 1,201 | +/-: 33
But his fondest memory of his playing days had nothing to do with the NHL. It was being a member of the U.S. team that won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey by defeating Canada.

"I'd have to say that's No. 1," Tkachuk told NHL.com. "Especially with a group of guys that no one gave a real chance against Canada in the finals."

Team USA and Canada met in the tournament's championship, a best-of-three series with one game taking place in Philadelphia and the final two in Montreal. Both teams were littered with NHL stars and future of Hall-of-Famers, but Canada was and is the hockey superpower in the world. The U.S. team dropped the first game of the series, but rallied to win the final two on foreign soil.

"Winning the last two in Montreal was a huge accomplishment for the U.S. to really put us up there and not be a stepbrother to the Canadians," Tkachuk said. "It was a big steppingstone. Like the 1980 Olympics was for guys like me, '96 was huge for the next generation of Americans to get excited to play hockey."

Tkachuk, who had a goal in the series and five during the tournament, said it was more satisfying to pull off the upset in Montreal.

"It made it more special, of course," Tkachuk said. "Before Game 3, we're walking over to the rink from the hotel and the buzz on the street, the people all dressed up in Canadian gear giving us a lot of grief as we're walking. Then when you win and you're carrying around the trophy there. Then you're all showered up and you're with your family and you're going someplace to celebrate, there was nobody on the streets.

"In my mind, that was really cool because it was a dark day in Canada. In that tournament, we were better."

Tkachuk's career began four years prior in Winnipeg after he participated in the 1992 Winter Olympics. With the Jets, he had 3 goals and 5 assists in the team's final 17 games of the 1991-92 season, most of which he played before his 20th birthday in March.

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For an American kid away from home for the first time -- he played his college hockey at Boston University -- it was an imposing situation. But 641 games and 323 goals later with the Jets and Coyotes, everything worked out pretty well for Tkachuk, who got his start with USA Hockey as a 16-year-old.

"It was a blessing," Tkachuk said of his time in Winnipeg. "It was far away from home. They love their hockey, they're passionate in Winnipeg, and I got a chance to play. It was just one of those things where you had to grow up pretty quickly. When I got there after the Olympics, I had some pretty good veteran guys to rely on -- Randy Carlyle, Eddie Olczyk, Troy Murray, Phil Housley. So it was a pretty easy transition off the ice.

"On the ice, if you wanted to be an NHL player, it's a little more magnified in Canada, especially for a young American player. Things were great."

Olczyk bestowed the nickname upon Tkachuk because there was a Walter Tkaczuk who played for the New York Rangers for 14 years. Tkachuk said it wasn't the most creative nickname in hockey, but he didn't mind it at all.
 
"I wasn’t going to argue with a veteran guy," Tkachuk said. "When you're a young guy, you're happy that any veteran guy talks to you, so I just took it all in."

During his time in Winnipeg and Phoenix, he left an impression on Shane Doan, who played with Tkachuk in both cities and followed in his footsteps as team captain. The 35-year-old Doan was 18 when he joined the Jets in 1995, while Tkachuk was entering his fifth NHL season at the age of 23. Doan has spent his entire career with the franchise.

The two became fast friends, with Tkachuk imparting his wisdom on a youngster who would go on to have a pretty successful career as a leader and power forward in the NHL. For the 6-foot-1, 223-pound Doan, who has 303 goals and 756 points in 1,147 career games, he couldn't have asked for a better example than the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tkachuk.

"I looked up to him," Doan told NHL.com. "The way that he played the game, the way that he carried himself. He had a big personality. I just really admired him and wanted to play like him and just try to be like him.

"He did an unbelievable job of just encouraging me and pointing things out to me. As I got more comfortable on the team, he was great to me. I can't say enough good things about the way he treated me."

In the midst of his 10th season with the franchise, which by then had relocated to Phoenix, Tkachuk was traded to the Blues in exchange for three players and a first-round pick. The Blues were looking to add toughness to the lineup after they were blasted during the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Sharks.

"He did an unbelievable job of just encouraging me and pointing things out to me. As I got more comfortable on the team, he was great to me. I can't say enough good things about the way he treated me." -- Shane Doan on former teammate Keith Tkachuk

The move didn't come as a shock to Tkachuk, but it didn't make the news any easier to swallow.

"I knew it was coming," Tkachuk said. "You still get emotional. I really firmly believe when you're in a place for a long time, sometimes you get a little stale and need a fresh start. I felt it was good for both myself and the Phoenix organization to move on."

The 28-year-old Tkachuk wasted no time adjusting to his new environment. He scored 6 goals in the final 12 games of the regular season and was instrumental in the Blues reaching the Western Conference Finals, where they were beaten in five games by the eventual-champion Colorado Avalanche. Tkachuk had 2 goals and 7 assists during what turned out to be the deepest postseason run of his career.

Tkachuk formed a line with Pavol Demitra and Scott Mellanby that was unstoppable at times.

"I thought he was great," said Joel Quenneville, who coached Tkachuk for four seasons in St. Louis. "That line really worked well with him and Pavol Demitra, where they all brought a little something different. It had balance. Walt goes through people. Pav had some patience with the puck. So they all brought something and they were tough for teams to contain. Walt was a big force in going to the net and hanging around the net."

"He was probably the best at getting goals in a tight area. For a big man, he was able to play down low and get some separation with or without the puck. He was excellent at that. He was a big man and tough to contain."

Tkachuk spent his final nine seasons in St. Louis, save for an 18-game stretch with the Atlanta Thrashers where he had 7 goals and 8 assists after a deadline deal in 2007. Tkachuk returned to St. Louis in a trade that summer and finished his career with 208 goals in 542 games as a Blue. He reached the 500-goal and 1,000-point milestone as a member of the Blues and currently lives in St. Louis with family.

Almost all of Tkachuk's 538 career goals were scored from around the net, something that's a source of pride.

"I did enjoy it," said Tkachuk, who added a caveat to that statement. "I didn't enjoy getting cross-checked a hundred times by certain guys. Adam Foote, Derian Hatcher and guys like that. But you know what? The puck's eventually going to be there and why not try to get there? There's nothing better than scoring goals. If you enjoy scoring goals, you have to go those tough areas."

He became just the sixth American at that time to reach 1,000 points. Only three more have done it since.

But it wasn't the goals or assists or welts on his back from the abuse he took in front of the net that Tkachuk remembers most from his hockey career. It's the relationships he forged while playing a game he loved.

"The thing I cherish the most is having an opportunity to play with great players and meet guys I never would've met," Tkachuk said. "Do you think I ever imagined myself being great friends with a guy from Slovakia in Pavol Demitra? Or a guy like Teppo Numminen who's from Finland? Stuff like that, that's what I cherish the most."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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