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37 FOR 37: WELCOME MATT

The Flames won their own draft lottery when they snapped up the still-available Matthew Tkachuk with the sixth pick in 2016

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

In truth, Craig Conroy had purged the possibility completely out of his mind. Put it to bed, not so very different really than wistful daydreams of maybe someday purchasing the winning Powerball ticket or somehow happening upon a priceless curio at a yard sale.

"We never, ever, thought he'd still be available,'' confesses the Calgary Flames' assistant GM.

"So in your mind you kind of move on.

"I remember being at the Combine in Buffalo, after our meeting with him, and we're saying: 'Oh, that's so disappointing because he's exactly what we need.' We're sitting around waiting to talk to the next guy, kinda depressed, y'know?

"We thought Edmonton" - holding the fourth selection at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft - "was going to take him and that, as they say, was that."

Fast forward to June 24, 2016, at First Niagara Centre in Buffalo, and the drafting dominoes begin to fall: Auston Matthews, as expected, to Toronto. Patrick Laine, as expected, to Winnipeg. Then left winger Pierre-Luc Dubois goes third to Columbus.

At fourth - where the Flames expected the name of their preferred to be called - the Oilers choose Finnish sniper Jesse Puljujarvi, followed by Vancouver opting for another Finn, defenceman Olli Juolenen.

And there, somehow, still waiting, the apple of their eye: Matthew Tkachuk.

The Calgary travelling contingent was, needless to say, over the moon.

Regal NHL bloodlines. The product of the London Knights' hugely-successful junior academy. A Memorial Cup-lifting pedigree - where the kid only scored the title-clinching goal in OT on a wonky ankle in Red Deer.

A sublime mix of shimmering silk and industrial-grade sandpaper.

"To me, he plays in the guts of the game," praised general manager Brad Treliving. "He's got an innate ability around the net. The places that you have to go to score goals in this league, he goes there and he is an absolute pain in the rear-end to play against.

"We're excited to have him."

The excitement was entirely mutual.

"A couple picks in, I knew it was going to be the team. I had them circled ever since I visited them after the (NHL) combine.

"It was the place I wanted to be and this is where I want to get my shot."

Shortly after the selection, St. Louis Blues VP of hockey operations Al MacInnis texted Matthew's dad Keith, an old Bluenote teammate: "You're lucky."

A brief but ringing recommendation for the organization in which the flame-thrower had taken his first professional baby-steps and grown into a Hall of Fame-enshrined defenceman.

Often with teenage potential the initial reality falls somewhere short of expectation.

A happy exception, Tkachuk more than delivered on the build-up, however.

"Watching him in junior, he drove me crazy some games,'' laughs Conroy. "He walks that line. But he's good at it.

"I mean, if you're playing against him, sometimes you just want to punch him, right? He's one of those guys …

"But when he's on your team, you only want to hug him."

As things played out, following a 48-point/+14/105-PIM freshman season of accomplishment, an entire city, 1.2 million-plus, was queueing up to give the 19-year-old a mighty squeeze.

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