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From mom Chantal to grandpa Don, Matthew has plenty of people helping him acclimatize to turning pro

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GeorgejohnsonCH /

Having your grandfather as a temporary roomie doesn't necessarily cramp a kid's style.

At least not when the lodger is Winnipeg import Don Oster, the Ukrainian Iron Chef.

"His workspace right now,'' reports grandson Matthew Tkachuk, "is in the kitchen. 

"And I'm here to tell you, he has not disappointed.

"He makes a great Caesar salad. I love Caesar salad. He knows just exactly how much of each ingredient to put in.

"And the perogies … with bacon bits …'' said Tkachuk, as his eyes go all dreamy, as if he'd only just at that moment slipped a between-the-legs pass to Mikael Backlund for a gimme-goal at the near post.

"Don't tell RvA (Calgary Flames strength and conditioning coach Ryan van Asten) but sometimes I sneak in a little bit of sour cream on the side, too.

"They are the best … the absolute best."

So there, laid plain, is the secret to the eye-catching start to Tkachuk's NHL career: to-die-for perogies.

"I'm not sure that's the best pre-game meal,'' laughs Chantal Tkachuk, Matthew's mom. "But yes, my dad brings his perogies from Winnipeg when he visits Matthew. I don't know where he gets them. But they're wonderful, homemade Ukrainian perogies. And pretty darn good, I must say. 

"My side of the family is Ukrainian. And part of being Ukrainian is you've got to have your perogies."

In this, the initial transition from amateur to pro, buses to planes, good travel accommodation to grand, the 19-year-old Tkachuk is following in the footsteps of both Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett in having family bunk with him in the first season.

In Tkachuk's case, a rotation is involved: the parents of his junior billet family in London, ON left not too long ago, grandpa's here now, dad Keith arrives in February, his mom the month after that.

"That was huge for me,'' says Monahan, whose mother Cathy stayed here through her son's rookie campaign. "You're 18 years old, you come from junior where you live with a billet family, a second family. So you're used to having support.

"At 18, everyone still relies on their parents for a lot of things, right? So when you have a person like your mom or your dad or your grandpa in town living with you, it helps you to be more comfortable, settle in quicker.

"The guy I looked up to my first year - and still do - is Gio. He's our captain, our leader for a reason.

"My first year I'd come home and tell my mom 'Gio's doing this' or 'Gio's doing that.'

"Let's just say she heard a lot about Gio.

"You learn how to be a pro that first year. That lays the groundwork. So it's very important having family here to share it with you."

For Monahan, the preferred special of day was not, as in the Tkachuk household, perogies.

"Chicken breasts,'' he reports, "are my go-to. I still don't know how my mom marinates them or what spices she uses, but I haven't been able to prepare them in quite the same way.

"They just tasted better somehow.

"But I guess that's just what moms do."

Through this, the opening half-season of what Flames' partisans anticipate being a long, splendid stay for the sixth-overall pick in last summer's draft, Tkachuk's shifts hover in the 30-to-50-second range.

The volunteers parachuting into Calgary to share digs with him through the spring - from St. Louis, from Ann Arbor, MI, from Winnipeg - are on the hook for somewhat longer shifts, ranging anywhere from seven days to two-and-a-half weeks.

"We have no shortage of recruits,'' reports Chantal. "It not as if we have to twist any arms. This being his first year, everyone's so excited and eager to see him play."

Chantal - who Tkachuk describes as "the boss of the family" - is in charge of scheduling visitation rights for each for the Flames' major home stands.

"Do you remember the TV show The Love Boat?'' she asks. "Well, Keith calls me Julie McCoy," referring to the perky cruise director played by Lauren Tewes on the campy comedy series that ran from 1977 to '88.

"Not just for our family but for the extended family."

The logistics sometimes can be a bit tricky, though. Chantal and the couple's daughter Taryn hold down the fort at home base in St. Louis, while patriarch Keith spends a good deal of time near son Braeden, currently part of the U.S. hockey development program, in Ann Arbor.

Keith, of course, is a decorated 19-year NHLer. One of only five American-born players to score 500 goals, a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, a 1,200-game, 1,000-point man.

Tkachuk is sort of a Mini-Me version of his dad, who not only looks like Keith but carries some of the same traits into battle, including a mule-calibre stubbornness.

"They are so much alike it's frightening, actually,'' laughs Chantal. "He definitely is a chip-off-the-old-block."

While the teenager has seen his renown mushroom locally and league-wide since an October arrival, so far nobody's been pestering him unduly for autographs or selfies on his travels around town.

"This city,'' says Tkachuk "is really respectful. They give you your space. But it's a smaller city. Not a Toronto or a Chicago.

"You're a Calgary Flame, which is big news around town, but it's not New York. So the best of both worlds."

Whether driving the net or driving opponents nuts, Tkachuk has outstripped any rational expectation the Flames could've harboured after he survived the nine-game cutoff to return to junior.

Partnering with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, they've morphed into Calgary's most consistent line.

Keith remembers that same feeling of oneness in the connections he forged with Pavol Demitra and Scott Mellanby, Craig Janney and Dallas Drake, lo those many winters ago.

"He's playing with two reliable players,'' says Keith. "Backlund's a solid 200-foot player, Frolik's more of a darter, a shooter.

"Matthew helps adds offence to that line.

"He takes chances to make plays and can make those plays in tight spaces. His hockey sense, he had that from an early age. And he's always had that confidence. He's approaching things like a 28-year-old."

Dad, watching Calgary games from out east, admits to being a hard marker.

"You've got to be careful, the way you look at it. He's going to make mistakes. If you watch one person - any person - too closely, like we do at home, you can nit-pick and find flaws, things you'd like to see him improve on.

"On the whole, I think he's handled things real well.  

"It's been pretty cool. But at the beginning of the year? Terrifying. Getting a little better now, though. You're still a parent first.

"So, pretty weird for my wife and I. Hard to explain. My wife's way too into it. She never got that excited when I played but that's OK.

"You know kids. They're more important than the husbands. And I think that's awesome, by the way.

"At least, I'm sure that's what she would say."

It is, as a matter of fact.

"Oh, far more difficult to watch my son,'' confesses Chantal. "I know him so well and I know how much he wants this. To not have any control over that, to have to sit back and watch him try and achieve his goals is really stressful.

"But it's also so exciting. Not that it wasn't exciting when Keith played, but at that time I was raising young kids, had a lot of other distractions.

"Now my daughter and I revolve our schedule around watching Matthew's games."

As someone who spent countless hours in arenas growing up, the young Tkachuk was naturally befriended - adopted isn't too strong a term - by the staff of teams Keith played for. Surrogate rink parents included trainers such as Ray Barile in St Louis and equipment gurus such as Stan Wilson in Phoenix and Tony DaCosta, now with the Minnesota Wild.

"He really lived and breathed hockey, since he was an infant,'' mom recalls. "He didn't play with a lot of toys, always had his mini-stick with him. He was always playing hockey or watching hockey or out on the road playing. He played other sports, too. Always had a ball or a stick in his hand. He wasn't inside playing video games. He was outside, active.

"So to see him now, I could not be more proud. I'll probably get emotional talking about it. I'm not surprised. He's a driven kid."

 And, naturally, there was always dad to turn to for on-ice advice.

Recently, Tkachuk stumbled on a YouTube video of NBA star Carmelo Anthony and eight-year-old son Kiyan talking hoops.

"I thought it was so cool,'' he says, "because that was me nine or 10 years ago.

"I'll always remember the conversations my dad I had in the car, about hockey. I have a real picture-vivid memory. My dad does, too. So we'd remember everything about the game I'd just played.

"We didn't have to go back and watch anything. We just talked hockey. He had so much to share.

"And now that my time has come in the NHL, talking to him is still beneficial.

"I think you can ask anybody in this locker-room: Coming in, I wasn't too timid. Not real outspoken or loud or pushy.

"But I kinda knew my place.

"Growing up in rinks, I understood the routine. Especially playing in London and with the U.S. team, both of those experiences helped me out so much because they're kind of mini-NHL."

No danger, with the onrush of success, that maybe a bit of self-satisfaction might set in?

"He's not that kind of kid,'' says Keith. Then, with mock severity: "Besides, if he did, he'd have me to deal with."

"I wouldn't be too worried about that," says Tkachuk. "I'm not content with anything I've done or anything I'm doing now. That's not the way it works. If anything, I want to get better the second half of the year and better and better after that.

"It's been so great so far. Everybody's really accepted me. I've got the guys in here to turn to when I need something or have any questions."

Along with, of course, the cast of revolving family roommates. Which, by the way, is a mandatory club policy for young newbies.

"It's not because you don't trust them,'' explains Flames GM Brad Treviling, "but there's so much going on. So we want that part of their life - cooking, cleaning, stability - looked after.

"And we're lucky family members are able to do this.

"Because for these kids, from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed, there's all this pressure, all this excitement, all this newness.

"The normalcy of having a family member at home when you walk in and close the door behind you is a weight off their shoulders. They've just got so much coming at them."

Keith, who traces his first NHL season back to '91-92 in Winnipeg, is a wholehearted supporter of the initiative.

"I know what it was like being a young guy, having money and living by yourself. You can make bad decisions.

"I think it's important. You're always eating out, in a smaller town, everyone knows what you do, a lot of temptations. Kids his age in university - as you call it in Canada - are out having fun.

"With new technology you have to be extra careful, of course.

"Matthew wants to be a pro. For a long time. So I'm not worried about any of that stuff. He's always been a good kid. Good in school. Responsible.

"But it's always nice when things aren't going maybe as well as you'd like to have a family member there to talk to, to lean on.

"So I agree with the concept 100 percent."

Eventually, though, as the newness wears off, the life of a professional takes great hold, there'll only be the occasional visit.

"I'm pretty sure next year it'll just be me,'' reasons the young Tkachuk, "but for this year, it's worked out really well.

"It's great having (grandpa Don) around. Having everybody, in fact.

"Just to have somebody there, to shoot the breeze with, hang out with and …"

Small smile creeps across Tkachuk's face. 

"… make food, is awesome.

"I think it's been great for them to be here, too, to go to games, come to practices. They're enjoying themselves, too."

The agenda for Tkachuk's upcoming evening, a non-game day, is a quiet one. Holed up at base camp with grandpa Don, watching some TV.

"Maybe,'' he says, brightening up, "he'll whip up some of those perogies."

There's that eyes-all-dreamy look again.

"At least, I sure hope so."

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