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Tkachuk ready for NHL debut on Wednesday

The 18-year-old is eagerly anticipating the Flames' season opener in Edmonton

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH /

CALGARY, AB -- The difference? Imagine flooring the family mid-size four-door down Deerfoot, then hanging on for dear life on a Nevada straightaway inside a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, which can go from 0-60 MPH in 2.4 seconds.

"Oh, it'll seem faster,'' cautions Calgary Flames' assistant GM Craig Conroy, from experience.

"Because it is faster.

"Way faster.

"This'll be a big jump for him. An eye-opener, for sure. But at least the first few days, it's going to be such an adrenalin high. Opening night of the season in Edmonton, then opening night here and then the next night in Vancouver.

"That's why those nine games are great because they are kind of an audition but the first few, as I've said, you're kind of being swept up in the emotion, the newness, all that.

"It's as you hit four, five, six, seven that you can really start to judge a young guy's NHL readiness. But even, say, from the first game to Christmas there's a huge difference in the games.

"The level just keeps elevating."

Wednesday at bright, shiny, new Rogers Place, Matthew Tkachuk marks his regular season NHL debut.

The 18-year-old has been the hit of camp, partnering with Troy Brouwer and Sam Bennett on a rambunctious line that has subbed admirably in the absence of both Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.

Now, opening up against those nefarious Edmonton Oilers, can he raise the ante, push the envelope?

"We're playing against a good young hockey team,'' said Tkachuk, afforded a refreshing bit of nearly-alone time Tuesday post-practice with the furor surrounding Gaudreau's return. "Everything gets amped up. They're going to have their guys going, the building's going to be jumping.

"So we've got to be ready."

He's got to be ready.

After passing the multiple choice section of his final exam with flying colours, the sixth overall pick in last summer's NHL entry draft now flips to the long essay portion of the testing.

This is when you either pass or fail the term.

"When you go through this process,'' said GM Brad Treliving, "you're trying to determine what's right for him and what's right for us. And he's proven to this point that he deserves to be here.

"So far, it's been right for him and it's been right for us.

"But we'll be asking that question every day.

"As I've told him, the questions get harder, the competition's going to get harder. It's night and day, from the games he's played in the last few weeks to what he'll experience Wednesday.

"We're going to go have patience with him."

So far, he's more than lived up to the billing. During pre-season, Tkachuk scored twice, netted a shootout winner and played well above his tender years.

"You don't want to take your chance for granted, obviously," he agreed. "I want to play as hard as I can and see what happens.

"I don't know what to expect, really.

"I've never played at this level before. It's definitely going to be a step up from pre-season."

Being asked if he remembered his first OHL start for the London Knights elicited a smile.

"Yeah, I do. But I think this one will be a bit different."

Just a little.

Tkachuk's dad, Keith, one of the top power forwards of his time, has been a reference point since Matthew was a kid, of course.

"I haven't really talked to him too much about (first game jitters). I think we're both just really, really excited for the moment.

"It's going to be crazy. I've got my parents coming, so it's something I can share with them.

"This has been my lifelong dream, to play in the NHL. To do it in my first year, I couldn't ask for anything better.

"I've talked to a bunch of guys in here about what to expect but we don't talk too much about auditions. You just live in the moment."

And quite a moment it's bound to be.

"Pretty special, right?'' agreed Flames' coach Glen Gulutzan. "I look at that young man and I'm sure he's talked to his dad. It's going to be a special game for him and his family.

"I probably won't say much. Just tell him to get ready. It's like your first game of junior. The bullets are going to be flying, it's gonna feel fast.

"But just play instinctual. He's done a great since the time he got here until now.

"I just want him to get in the fabric of the game and play his game."

"He's not overwhelmed,'' chipped in Conroy. "And he's passed every test so far. What he brings in his game is what we need on this team. So if he can keep the level up …

"But if it does taper off, there's nothing - absolutely nothing - wrong with going back to junior. It's not an indictment or anything. He's already done a great job, had a great camp."

We have reached, however, the long essay portion of the exam.

So buckle up, hunker down, kid. You're in the Bugatti now.

"One thing about Matthew,'' praised Treliving. "He 'gets' it. He sort of walks around as if he's been here for five years.

"In the right way.

"Some of the veteran guys were saying, 'You talk to him and its as if he's been in the league for years.' Not in a cocky way. In a very confident way.

"He's very respectful of the do's and don'ts in the locker room.

"I think he's understands how different the level of play is going to be starting Wednesday. He's aware. But in saying that, he's also got every confidence that 'Yeah, it's going to be harder, it's going to be quicker. I'm ready for it.'

"We'll see."

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