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Move to center reinvents, reinvigorates Tkachuk

by Larry Wigge /

St. Louis Blues' Keith Tkachuk eyes the puck as Los Angeles Kings' Michael Cammalleri defends Oct. 6, 2007.
It was early December last season. The St. Louis Blues failed to live up to expectations and Andy Murray was brought in to coach, replacing Mike Kitchen. Then, in just his second game with the Blues, Murray asked veteran power forward Keith Tkachuk to switch from left wing to center.

An odd move, Tkachuk thought.

"I didn’t know what to think," Tkachuk remembered. "Most kids, at one point in their career, played center. Not me. I was always a left winger. I told Andy I’d give it a try. Honestly, I figured it would be over in a couple of games and I’d be back at left wing.

"But, all of a sudden, I started to feel better about myself, my game. I felt sort of reinvented. I was skating more. Making things happen."

A 35-year-old, two-time 50-goal scorer who is closing in on 500 career NHL goals and 1,000 points ... reinvented?

Making things happen always was the story for the Melrose, Mass., native who grew up dreaming that maybe, just maybe, he could become a power forward like Cam Neely, Tkachuk’s favorite growing up as a Boston Bruins fan.

Actually, Murray was a young assistant coach with the Winnipeg Jets for the two seasons just before Tkachuk’s career took off with the Jets. Andy watched and admired Tkachuk bang his way to scoring 30 or more goals in nine of his first 12 full NHL seasons while making a name for himself as one of the most difficult and dangerous players in the game.

"When I saw Keith in a few games before I took over as coach, I wasn’t seeing the same player," Murray recalled. "I thought he was standing still too much. I thought switching him to center would be a way to get him moving around more, getting more involved.

What Keith didn’t know is Murray wanted to make the move permanent because the Blues were woefully small at center in a conference where the Blues were up against big centers like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Jason Arnott.

This was just the start of a relationship between Tkachuk, Murray and the Blues that would, ironically, lead Tkachuk to leaving St. Louis after parts of five seasons with the Blues and then return at a later date.

Now, Tkachuk and the Blues are joined by All-Star winger Paul Kariya and former center Brad Boyes, which allows Tkachuk the opportunity to be a center; but also be the big impact factor he’s always been in front of the net once again.

"It just makes sense that you want a big body like that to be big in front of the net," Murray said.

"There aren’t many players who can be as big in the hard scoring areas on the ice like Walt (nickname for Tkachuk, referring to former Ranger center Walt Tkaczuk),” Kariya said. “And there definitely aren’t any big players with the kind of hands that he has."

Just because Keith Tkachuk, his wife, Chantal, and their children, Matthew, Braeden and Taryn, have come to love St. Louis didn’t make it a given that he would be back after being traded to Atlanta at last season’s deadline.

"There was always a thought that, because I would be a free agent July 1, that I might come back to St. Louis,” Tkachuk said. “But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a chance at my dream of winning a Stanley Cup with the Thrashers. Although, we didn’t win, I consider waiving my no-trade clause to go to Atlanta and have the opportunity to play with some great players like Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa and Slava Kozlov as kind of re-inventing my enthusiasm for playing this game."

Re-invented again? Actually, Tkachuk began to look at life at 35 like a teen-ager. He began to work out in earnest for this season, knowing that this year could be a very big one for the Tkachuks. Only he didn’t know where it was going to happen.

"I loved it in Atlanta, but the option to keep me there meant that the Thrashers would have had to surrender another first-round pick to the Blues if they re-signed me and (General Manager) Donnie Waddell told me early on that that might be a sticking point for the Thrashers," Tkachuk said. "I started looking around at the rest of the teams in the NHL. But things always seemed to come back to St. Louis.

"I didn’t know they were going to make another deal with Atlanta to get re-acquire my rights (June 26). But it was a good feeling, knowing that (Blues President) John Davidson, (GM) Larry Pleau and Andy Murray wanted me back."

Actually, the Tkachuk family never really left, because Keith chose not to uproot his family from St. Louis.

"I went to Atlanta for two months with one thing in mind ... to win a Stanley Cup," Tkachuk said. "They stayed here. The kids went to school, did their sports."

Tkachuk’s involvement in his sons’ sports (he coaches them in hockey and can usually be found at their baseball games) led him back to St. Louis and, ironically, created a rather nervous time in the Blues front office before he re-signed with the team on the night before the beginning of free agency July 1.

He met separately with Al MacInnis, Davidson and Pleau and, along with Chantal, had dinner with Murray. Then, on June 30, Davidson and Pleau wanted to get their ducks in a row, and that meant signing Tkachuk before he was able to test the entire free-agent field.

That morning, the Tkachuks went to Kansas City for one of Matthew’s baseball tournaments. Chantal sent the kids to the field with a family friend while they talked on the phone with agent Bob Murray in Boston.

A few hours later, Davidson and Pleau called to try to iron out a final agreement.

"We wanted to come out of the first days of free agency with a quality center and winger," Pleau recalled. "Signing Walt to give us that big center was the key to the next step, which turned out to be Paul Kariya."

"When we reached Keith on the phone that afternoon, we had a big problem," Davidson recalled, sounding worried. "All we could hear on Keith’s cellphone was crowd noise and wind blowing hard. It was all crackling and pop."

And no snap decision for the Blues. After a few hours, the two sides talked again.

"J.D. and I were sitting on pins and needles waiting for him say yes, so that we could make out next step," Pleau said.

Recalled Tkachuk. "I told them money wasn’t an issue. I just wanted to know that they were committed to winning now. They told me about their plans. It’s funny, but I felt good ... sort of like a college recruit again."

Matthew won his game that afternoon and lost that night. But the Tkachuk’s were headed home.

And so far this season, the St. Louis Blues have some snap, crackle and pop with the line of Keith Tkachuk, Paul Kariya and Brad Boyes helping lead the way.

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