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True Blue: A Keith Tkachuk Story

by Chris Pinkert / St. Louis Blues
Keith Tkachuk high-fives fans as he leaves the ice for the final time on April 9. A veteran of 19 years, Tkachuk played in 1,201 games, recording 538 goals, 527 assists and 2,219 penalty minutes (Getty Images).

  Apr. 13: Video | Audio | Photos
  Video: Post Game | Tribute from NHL Network
  Audio: Tkachuk Radio Calls | After Final Game
  Photos: Career Photos | His Last Game
  Tkachuk: Career Stats | Game-by-Game Log
There are two sides to every story.

You’ve heard the one about Keith Tkachuk, the big guy from Boston who let his actions speak for themselves and wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. You know how he went about making a successful career for himself, skating to areas of the ice no one but the goalie dared to go: in front of the net and directly in the line of fire. You also know that in January, he scored a meaningless late goal in a 6-3 loss to Chicago that cost him five of his teeth.

That’s the kind of player he was, one who would make sacrifices for the betterment of the team.

The side of the story you don’t know about the big, tough guy from Boston is that he has a softer side. Only his family and recently, his teammates, know about that.

“It was an emotional roller coaster when I had to tell the guys (I was retiring),” Tkachuk said. “I think I ruined my reputation as being a hard guy in the locker room. I kind of broke down.”

"He's obviously a guy that doesn't show a whole lot of soft emotion and when he brought that out, it was tough to hold back," said teammate David Backes.

Blues goalie Chris Mason said he'll remember the moment for a long time.

“He’s got such a presence and just his passion for hockey, his love for his family, you can just see it every time you look at him,” said Mason. “I just have so much respect for him. When he announced (his retirement to the team), you’re both sad and happy for him. You see a guy who has given everything he has to this game that he loves so much. It was pretty emotional.”

Who knew beneath all the intimidating strength and toughness that made him ‘Big Walt,’ there was a loving, caring family man? A man who realized it was time to hang up the skates and spend time with a family that means the world to him. His wife, Chantal, his two hockey-playing sons, Matthew and Braeden, and his youngest, a daughter, Taryn.

A decision to leave the game after 19 NHL seasons won’t be terribly easy to cope with.

“I think once we get into next year, when everybody goes back to work and I’m not, I’m going to really miss being around the guys and being in the locker room and competing night in and night out,” Tkachuk said. “I’ve been playing hockey since I was six years old so this is new to me. It’s going to be different. I think it’ll really hit home when they start playing games next year. That’s when it will be really hard.”

Tkachuk finishes his career with 1,201 games played, 538 goals and 527 assists (1,065 points). He is only the fourth player in NHL history to score 1,000 points and record more than 2,000 penalty minutes.

He played 543 games for the Blues, recording 427 points, which ranks him seventh all-time among Blues players. He ranks fifth in team history in goals (208).

“Let’s face it, he’s played the game hard. He’s had a great career with us,” said Blues General Manager Larry Pleau, who was responsible for bringing Tkachuk to St. Louis in a trade that sent Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, Jeff Taffe and a first round pick to Phoenix in 2000. “I think the fans enjoyed him, I think (the media) enjoyed him. I have a lot of respect for him.”

Blues fans showed their respect last Friday in Tkachuk’s final NHL game, a 6-3 win against Anaheim. When announced as a starter, he received a long standing ovation that caused a slight delay in the game’s start time. He recorded two assists as the crowd chanted “Keith Tkachuk, Keith Tkachuk, Keith Tkachuk.”

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“It was a special moment,” Tkachuk said of his final game. “As soon as I got on the ice in warmups and it carried on all game…I knew that we had unbelievable hockey fans, but what they did for me, I should be thanking them instead of the other way around. It’s humbling.”

Tkachuk was selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the first round (19th overall) of the 1990 NHL Draft, and his career began with his debut in 1992. He followed the team when it moved to Phoenix in 1996 and was traded to the Blues during the summer of 2000. He also had a brief stint with Atlanta in 2008 before returning to St. Louis.

“The trade (to the Blues) extended my career,” he said. “Getting a chance to play with people like Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Scott Mellanby and Dallas Drake, some of the ultimate leaders. I think everybody at some point has to get a fresh start somewhere.”

Despite never wearing the captain’s ‘C’ for the Blues, Tkachuk was always considered a leader,  especially among the younger players.

“He kind of got on (my case) for making sure I did everything like a professional hockey player. He was trying to get me started off the right way,” said David Perron, who joined the team after being drafted in 2007. “I’m really glad I got to play with him. I’ll miss him a lot.”

When David Backes got called up to the big leagues after a stint with the Peoria Rivermen, Tkachuk opened his home to the Minnesota native to help him get acclimated to St. Louis.

“There's not too many guys like 'Big Walt.' He's got his antics, but he's also got his way of leading and showing,” Backes said. “It's awesome that I was able to be a teammate, in the locker room and living in the house of such a phenomenal hockey player.

“He played in the days where it was pretty much no holds barred. He had to work for every inch he got. He's paid the price and put in his time and effort,” Backes added. “And I’ve seen a little bit more of the softer side of him, living at his house, seeing how he reacts with his daughter and how soft he gets with her. It’s obviously an emotional time for him. It’s the end of a very illustrious career with accomplishments I can’t even begin to list.”

Career highlights include five NHL All-Star appearances, a silver medal with Team USA at the 2002 Winter Olympics and a gold medal at the World Cup of Hockey in 1996.

The only thing missing is a Stanley Cup.

“Trust the process of this organization,” Tkachuk told the fans in a television interview on Apr. 7. “Someday we’ll win the Stanley Cup and I know I won’t have a jersey on, but I’ll be a part of it. This is going to be a great process to watch our team grow. It’s going to happen.”

His love for the Blues and city of St. Louis is unmistakable.

“We have a lot of friends and a lot of support in St. Louis. This is where we’re going to live the rest of our lives," he said. "Coming from Boston, I never imagined living anywhere else, and now I’m going to live in Missouri.”

Said Blues President John Davidson, "What Keith did for this franchise and for our city, it's a real remarkable story."

But that part, you already knew.

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