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Nick Tarnasky: Taking It All in Stride

by Lonnie Herman / Tampa Bay Lightning
Old time Hockey.

The term comes from the 1977 motion picture Slap Shot in which player-coach Reggie Dunlop (played by Paul Newman) calls on his team, the Charleston Chiefs, to turn around a losing game by playing tough. Today, the term is used by sportscasters and fans when the on-ice action degenerates into a brawl or rough play. Its chippy and hard-hitting.

Fans love it. They embrace and cheer on the player that epitomizes the style today. And therein lays the secret to Lightning forward Nick Tarnasky’s popularity with the rank-and-file that packs the St. Pete Times Forum on game night.

Because Tarnasky, in his second full season with Tampa Bay, has made a habit of leaving it all on the ice despite the few minutes on the ice per game he wrangles.

Tarnasky’s toughness landed him a spot on the team to begin with, coming out of training camp in October ’06 (he played 12 games in the previous season), and it’s that quality that has allowed him to stick and make a contribution. No small matter on a team that values physical play. But lately, there are some changes afoot.

His on-ice minutes have been, comparatively, soaring. He settled in to a steady spot on the third line, and his game is showing signs of, dare we say it, finesse.

Is it possible the 6-foot-2 bruiser is trying to emulate his boyhood idol, Wayne Gretzky?

“Maybe when I was 8 years old,” Tarnasky explains, “but not now. As far as Gretzky and me goes, we’re complete opposites.”

Still, there have been flashes; he’s protecting the puck better, blocking shots and making a larger contribution to a team that values contributions and quality minutes from beyond the first line.

“It’s like this,” Tarnasky explains. “I’m not getting the puck and practically throwing it away. Now I understand that I have some time and some space.”

And the Lightning have expectations.

“Nick Tarnasky has all the makings of a true dominant power forward in the NHL,” General Manager Jay Feaster said when Tarnasky signed a three-year deal in June of 2007. “We need him to understand that he’s better than he is.”

Tarnasky understands and agrees.

“That’s ‘bang-on’, as far as where my career started in this league,” Tarnasky explained. “I used to just hope I was in the line-up and then hope I got a shift every period. Now, I’m playing with more confidence.”

Exceeding expectations isn’t new for Tarnasky. He was drafted in the ninth round (287th overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. You would imagine that a player whose dream was always to make the NHL would have been sweating as each undrafted round progressed. You’d be wrong.

“For me it was, ‘hey, get drafted, don’t get drafted, whatever,’” Tarnasky recalled. “Didn’t matter. I wasn’t exactly a kid with lots of hype.”

For Tarnasky, a product of Rocky Mountain House in Alberta, there was other alternatives: Working in the oil patch, being a plumber or a welder, or working with his dad, a general contactor. You get the sense that Tarnasky would have taken any of those options, if that is what came his way, in stride. But that’s what comes from growing up in a town with a population of 7,200.

“Growing up in a small town makes you happy,” Tarnasky said. “I think it makes you who you are. I certainly don’t wish it were any different – who knows what would have happened if I grew up in a city environment.’

Tarnasky the CPA? Tarnasky the City Planner? Hard to imagine.

It’s routine for a Canadian hockey prospect to pack up and leave the comforts of home at an early age. The dynamics of the sport require it, despite how unusual that may appear to some parents. Teens with hockey talent head off to play for teams in towns large and small throughout the country. Tarnasky has been on his own since age 14.

“For me, I found you have to rely on more on yourself at an early age,” Tarnasky explained. “You don’t have anyone picking you up – you have to learn to take the bus. You have to learn to get by on the amount of money you have. It wasn’t a big deal.”

What is a big deal for the easy-going Tarnasky? Getting more ice time, learning to play better defense, and making a contribution to the Lightning. And his efforts have not gone unrecognized.

“You can tell by his minutes, he’s doing well,” Lightning Coach John Tortorella said of Tarnasky recently, “He’s become one of our best shot blockers. He struggled at certain times but now he’s getting scoring chances and some results – I think he’s found a comfort level on the ice.”

He’s found a comfort level in Tampa, too.

“This is a great town, I love it here,” Tarnasky enthused. “It’s a great city, everybody I meet are excellent people and the climate is pretty easy to get used to.”

All in all, a far cry from working in the chilly Canadian oil patch.
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