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Coyotes set to honor Tkachuk on Friday night

by Jerry Brown
Shane Doan has been captain of the Phoenix Coyotes for eight years, longer than anyone in franchise history. But ask him about "Captain Coyote," and Doan will start talking about Keith Tkachuk.

Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque and Bobby Clarke are on the short list of the NHL's most revered captains, but no one enjoyed wearing the "C" more than Tkachuk – the brash Bostonian bull in a china shop who played hockey with the same approach.

There were few filters -- and no excuses. What you saw was what you got -- and what the Coyotes got was one of the best power forwards of his era and a reason for fans to come to the rink every night.

Less than two weeks after his induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Tkachuk will enter the Coyotes Ring of Honor at Arena before the Coyotes and St. Louis Blues -- the two teams for which he played all but 18 games of his 19-year NHL career -- meet on Friday.

"It's been an incredible couple of weeks," Tkachuk said. "It's been a while since I've been back to Arizona, and the memories just come flooding back. Great teams. Great teammates and friends. Great fans. It was a great time in my life."

Tkachuk scored 323 of his 538 NHL goals with the Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise, second to Dale Hawerchuk on the all-time franchise list. He owns two of the four 50-goal seasons in franchise history, scoring 50 and 52 goals in back-to-back seasons. But he was also a larger-than-life sports figure in a town where it takes star power to turn the heads of a lukewarm fan base.

"We played to packed houses a lot of the time, and those who say hockey doesn't work in Phoenix should go back and look at where it was at that time," said Tkachuk, dubbed "Walt" by Winnipeg teammate Eddie Olczyk in his rookie year after 1970s Rangers center Walt Tkaczuk, whose name has the same pronunciation. "The thing that makes me most happy is seeing the Arizona kids who picked up the game watching the Coyotes now grown up and getting drafted by the NHL or earning Division I scholarships. I'm proud of the impact we had on those kids."

Tkachuk came to Phoenix with the Jets the same summer (1996) as the team signed Chicago Blackhawks star Jeremy Roenick as a free agent. Despite rumors that the two king-sized personalities and egos clashed on and off the ice, the two forged a fast friendship during their time as teammates and remain close.

Roenick came to Chicago recently for a gathering the night before Tkachuk's Hall of Fame induction and they talk on the phone often. "Walt was a great teammate and a great friend," said Roenick, who will join Tkachuk in the Coyotes' Ring of Honor later this season. "When I came to Phoenix and we played on the same line, he made things very simple.

"He said, ‘I have two rules: Rule No. 1, get me the puck. Rule No. 2, don't forget rule No. 1.'"

Roenick said Tkachuk was willing to pay the price to score goals, using his large frame and prominent hind quarters to rule the slot.

"So many people go to where the puck is. Keith went to where the puck was going," Roenick said. "His instincts and his hockey sense were incredible. He had four goals one night in Chicago (March 20. 1997), and I swear he could have had seven. There were a lot of nights like that. He wasn't the best skater, but he knew where to go and how to get there first."

Tkachuk and Roenick teamed for 81 goals in their first season in Phoenix – 52 by Tkachuk, who led the NHL with his second straight 50-goal season. They also teamed with fellow Boston natives Bob Corkum and Craig Janney to form "The Massachusetts Mafia" -- a pack of young Coyotes who enjoyed playing horrible golf, smoking fine cigars and partaking in nearby Scottsdale's vibrant nightlife.

They also enjoyed taking their act on the road and wouldn't let a silly thing like coach Jim Schoenfeld's curfew get in the way. Roenick remembered one December road trip to Florida in 1997 where a tired crew needed their captain to bail them out.

"We had a game the next night but that didn't stop Keith, Bobby Corkum, C.J. and I from sneaking out to hit South Beach." he said. "We finally crawled in about 4 a.m. and we were all in pretty rough shape. I felt like I was skating in the sand. I couldn't move, and the rest of our gang was a mess too.

"But Walt (Tkachuk) was everywhere. He had a hat trick and we won 3-2. He won the game himself."

After the game, Tkachuk sauntered onto the team bus, went past Schoenfeld with a big smile, and after walking down the aisle singing his trademark song after a road win, "Closing Time" by Semisonic, he announced. "OK boys, I did my part. The rest of the road trip is up to you."

Later that same season, Florida was again the opponent, this time in Phoenix the night before the All-Star break began. Tkachuk, Roenick and linemate Rick Tocchet were headed to Las Vegas for the weekend on a midnight flight right after the game. But the game went into overtime, threatening their fragile itinerary.

"He was so mad. He was screaming on the bench," Roenick said.

It took Tkachuk a little more than a minute to send the fans home happy with a game-winner -- and save himself and his mates an airline change fee.

"He was just a bull," Roenick said. "When he was on, there was nothing he couldn't do."

The one thing those Coyotes couldn't do was get past the first round of the playoffs. They had a 3-2 series lead against Anaheim on 1997 before Roenick blew out his knee in Game 6 and Phoenix couldn't close the deal. They had Detroit on the ropes in 1998, up 2-1 and leading in Game 4, but injuries to Nikolai Khabibulin and Teppo Numminen helped the Wings rally to win. A year later, with Roenick sidelined by a shattered jaw and Tkachuk playing through pain, the Coyotes blew another 3-2 series lead and lost Game 7 in overtime 1-0 to St. Louis.

"We just couldn't find a way to close it out," said Tkachuk, who had six goals in seven games in the Anaheim series. "We really wanted to get to that next level. We were good enough but it always seemed like something was working against us, injuries or bad luck or great efforts from opponents. We should have gone further a few times. If we get over the hump, who knows how far we go?"

Tkachuk also scoffs at the notion that Phoenix isn't a hockey town. With the Cardinals of that era consistent losers, the Suns in rebuilding mode and the Diamondbacks yet to be born, the Coyotes packed then-America West Arena in downtown Phoenix. Tkachuk and Roenick jerseys were the hot item in the desert.

"Arizona made us feel welcome as soon as we got there, and we had a good, entertaining team and it took off," Tkachuk said. "I know they've had a tough time lately and the new arena can be tough to get to, but I know there are true hockey fans ,and getting a stable owner would make a big difference. Shane is a great ambassador for the sport there and it can work."

Another legacy of the Phoenix organization is money problems, which led to first Tkachuk and then Roenick to be traded. When he was dealt to the Blues in 2001 for the uneven bounty of Ladislav Nagy, Michal Handzus, Jeff Taffe and a first-round pick, he understood it wasn't personal.

"I knew I was going to be traded, and they were very good about it," he said. "I still have a condo in Scottsdale and once the kids are older, I'm sure [his wife] Chantal and I will spent a lot more time there. It will be nice to go back and see my name in the arena every once in a while."
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