Matthew is one of those guys, whether you want to be in the war or not, he pulls you into it. That’s just his nature. He doesn’t abide bystanders. - Basil McRae
As someone who cut his teeth - and frequently his knuckles - in the “Chuck” Norris Division, forged a 16-year NHL career on bone and blood and scar tissue, the battlefield is familiar, bordering on sacred, terrain to Basil McRae.
“Matthew,’’ says the London Knights’ GM and part-owner admiringly, “is one of those guys, whether you want to be in the war or not, he pulls you into it.
“That’s just his nature.
“He doesn’t abide bystanders.
“He isn’t just ‘this’ type of player, or ‘that’ type of player.
“You can say he’s a ‘skill’ guy and you’d be right. But there’s also a willingness to go to the dirty places, work the boards, take the hit behind the net or in front, tip-ins, screens ...
“One night you can say he’s an agitator, getting under the skin of the top guys. The next night, he’s a playmaker. Then a goal scorer. He’s not afraid to chirp back. To fight when need be.
“Good size. Very mature kid.
“Will he be an impact player at the NHL level?
All eyes will naturally be drawn to Matthew Tkachuk, the Calgary Flames’ sixth overall selection of the 2016 NHL Draft, when the Young Stars Classic swings into gear at Penticton, BC on Sept. 16th.
Already Flaming C partisans catch themselves at odd moments daydreaming of uniting the newest prodigy on a line alongside a couple of earlier vintage - Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.
We’re talking Keith’s kid, as everyone is doubtless aware. Same firm, Kirk Douglas jawline. Similar don’t-screw-with-me on-ice demeanour. Both stand 6-foot-2, although the offspring requires 30 additional pounds of muscle to catch up to the old man’s prime-time playing weight of 235.
“There are lot of similarities, actually,’’ acknowledges McRae, while watching the Knights go through their early training-camp paces at Budweiser Gardens.
“Keith was such a big, strong guy, went to the net so hard, so difficult to stop.
“Matt’s a strong player and has a nose for net, too. He goes to the dirty areas and that’s why he scores, like his dad.
“He is fearless, like his dad.
“His dad was a pure power forward. Matt’s got a lot of that in him but he’s also a very good playmaker. Not that Keith couldn’t pass but he was more of a drive-and-shoot-first type player. Matthew has eyes in the back of his head. Ask (Mitch) Marner and (Christian) Dvorak. They love playing with him. He consistently gets them the puck.
“He somehow knows where they are at all times. That’s an ability you can’t teach.”
As a stylistic reference, pop is the convenient comparable, but McRae sees as much of another familiar name in the junior Tkachuk: A large, not-easily-put-off Swede who logged over 1,000 games with his Size XL hockey pants in distressingly close proximity to crouching opposition goalies, stockpiling over 500 points in aiding and abetting the Detroit Red Wings in four Stanley Cups wins between 1997 and 2008.
“In my mind,’’ reckons McRae, “Matthew’s a more skilled (Tomas) Holmstrom. Holmstrom, if you remember, was able to play with Detroit’s best players - Yzerman, Zetterberg - yet excelled in those dirty areas that are so vital to winning or losing games.
“Matthew has a better playmaking ability than Holmstrom but they share a mindset.
“Everyone may have wanted to kill Holmstrom but at the end of the way he won Stanley Cups, agitated and scored 25 to 30 goals every year. I can see Matthew being a lot like that.
“Calgary’s got some great skilled players there - Bennett, Monahan, Gaudreau - and he’d complement those guys.”
The McRae-Tkachuk ties go back a ways.
“We’ve been friends with Keith and Chantal and their family a long time, since our days in St. Louis. I remember Matt and Brady as just little guys starting out in hockey.
“My kids are a little older, so I didn’t have a lot to do with them in minor hockey but you never discount the bloodlines.
“Matthew wanted to come to London and become a hockey player. And that’s what he did.”
If one moment thrust him into the spotlight, if he wasn’t there already, that would that touchstone OT goal in late May at Red Deer to slay Rouyn-Noranda 3-2 and lifted the Knights back to the summit of Canadian junior hockey for the first time in 11 years.
“Scoring the overtime goal to win the Memorial Cup … that’s just him,’’ lauds McRae. “That was fitting.
“Because Matthew’s a personality. His personality shows on the ice as well as off it. He stands out.
“If he’s nervous, he doesn’t show it. He’s so confident. He wants to be that guy. That’s a great quality: Not being on your heels.
“If anyone’s going to pull a game out of the fire, if you’re going to bet $5 on someone to be the difference-maker in a big moment, well …
“Matthew relishes those moments.”
Can he stay or will he go? Inquiring minds want to know.
We’ll begin to get a sense of what all the fuss is about next Friday in Penticton, BC and a far better read when Flames’ main camp is up and running a few days later.
Basil McRae sets the preliminary odds at dead even.
“At the end of the day, it depends on how Calgary views his development.
“We’d obviously love to have him back but if he’s good enough to make it there and play, then we’ve done our jobs. We really feel the chances of Matt being on the Flames’ roster opening night or coming back are 50-50.
“He can definitely do it.
“Is that best for him? We’ll let Calgary make the call on that. We trust NHL teams on these decisions. The best fit for the player is in the best interests of everybody, first and foremost.
“But whether it’s now or later, he’ll be there, all right. And for a long time.”