It's what every hockey playing kid wants to hear - and Matthew Tkachuk has had a few "welcome to the NHL" moments in his life.
Growing up in what has become the hockey hotbed of St. Louis, Missouri, and in the shadow of his ever so popular NHL Dad, Keith Tkachuk, Matthew and siblings were right there in the hockey spotlight.
They were at countless NHL games, Olympics, and just immersed day to day in what it took to be a pro. Blues teammates like David Backes and former Flame Lee Stempniak lived at the Tkachuk house, while Matthew, the little sponge, soaked it all up.
I first met Matthew at the Memorial Cup in Red Deer where he and his London Knights teammates would later capture junior hockey's National Championship. I would bump into him again in Calgary during his meeting with the Flames before the NHL Entry Draft. I started to wonder then, about what a fit Tkachuk would be with the Flames but…they occupied the 6th overall pick. It seemed highly unlikely he would be available at that point. But as we know that's exactly what happened. "Welcome to the NHL" commissioner Gary Bettman would say.
The Flames had themselves a winner, NHL bloodlines and a talented player who can be a royal pain in the ass to play against. A perfect scenario.
I spent draft day with Matthew, running the gauntlet that is the NHL Draft. All the while, I marvelled at how calm and yet engaging he was under this intense spotlight while being pulled in different directions. Was this kid 18 or 28? Interviews for TV, radio, the NHL and all of their social media requests, Sportsnet, signatures, photos, fans, all of it over the next couple of hours before finally being reunited with his family.
The smiles, the hugs, the proud moments shared with of course 'Big Walt' (his Dad) and his mom Chantal, whom he calls after every game and credits her as the family head honcho. His brother, sister, and grandparents all beaming. It was there you got the sense of just how tight knit and real this family is.
There was the first game in Edmonton, which he describes in the upcoming podcast as surreal. The first goal, which would force overtime against Buffalo, and then there was the return to St. Louis. He told me the night before in Chicago, he knew he would be in the lineup there and was looking forward to "putting on a show" where it all began.
he hype machine was in full effect in his hometown, yet the feisty forward refused to let it be a distraction. Handled his business like a pro, yet privately was still able to crack a joke at my expense. You had to like his moxy.
It was that game against the Blues that sealed the deal for Flames GM Brad Treliving who told me told me he had made up his mind about Tkachuk remaining with the team for the season. A decision that would be relayed to #19 the morning of his 10th game…in San Jose. We had our Flames TV cameras in the morning meeting where Flames head coach Glen Gulatzan was showing video of Matthew's mistakes…pointing out how it could be the difference between the OHL and the NHL…a moment caught on tape… the 18-year-old didn't flinch. The coach then said "but we think you've got enough in the bank to stay here. Welcome to the NHL."
He didn't skip a beat. Knew all along that this, is where he belonged. With the Calgary Flames. How did he reward his bosses that night? Two goals, including the game winner against the San Jose Sharks. Welcome to the NHL.
A couple of nights later, an elbow to the face of Jeff Carter and suddenly every LA King and their brother was after the mouthguard-chewing pest wearing the flaming "C".
Then came his first fight a night later in Anaheim.
A season of highs and lows. A season of firsts.
But you better believe this 18-year-old is ready for it.
"Welcome to the NHL," indeed.