The NHL has no shortage of young stars worth the price of admission at the moment. There’s Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Patrik Laine, Zach Werenski, Auston Matthews and many more.
And while they’re all extremely talented and fun to watch,how many of those young studs play with an attitude and a style that you love to hate? How many of them have true “villain” potential as a guy you get geared up to root against when they play your favorite team?
Laine is probably the headliner who falls closest to that description at the moment, simply because he’s not afraid to tell everyone how good he is. The fact that he also looks like a “Die Hard” henchman doesn’t hurt, either.
But Calgary Flames rookie forward Matthew Tkachuk is emerging as a young player who isn’t afraid to take on that role early in his career. Much like his father, former NHL great Keith Tkachuk, the younger Tkachuk is a skilled player who plays with a hearty amount of nastiness in his game.
The 19-year-old winger has carried his weight in a top six role with the Flames, playing alongside Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik in what has been an outstanding line. With 13 goals and 46 points, Tkachuk has established himself as a good NHL player.
He’s also established himself as kind of a jerk.
Hockey is one of those sports where guys love to talk about “the code” and police respect, especially with young players. Newcomers need to earn their stripes, respect their elders and pay dues until they’ve got a fair amount of experience under their belt.
That’s not something that appears to overly concern Tkachuk, who hasn’t been hesitant to mix it up with veterans, and occasionally mess with them, too.
Tkachuk’s biggest and most significant infraction came in a game against the Kings earlier this month when he delivered a brutal elbow to the face of Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty. It was a terrible and dangerous play, one that earned Tkachuk a well-deserved two-game ban from the league.
After that incident, Doughty was clearly ticked. The reigning Norris Trophy winner went after Tkachuk in his postgame media scrum, calling him a “pretty dirty player” and saying it’s surprising he’s playing like that at such a young age.
The bad blood had been established. Between the vicious elbow and Doughty’s response to it, that was more than enough to set the table for another Flames-Kings matchup this week. But when Tkachuk was asked about the defenseman’s comments prior to that rematch, he once again showed a bit of fearlessness in taking on a respected veteran player.
“I expected more from him, honestly, than to go right to the media and start complaining after a loss,” Tkachuk told the Calgary Sun.
That threw more wood on a fire that was already burning hot. All of a sudden, Wednesday’s rematch was a must-see, if only for the inevitable extracurriculars.
It didn’t take long. Hell, they didn’t wait for the game to start.
In pregame warmups, Tkachuk found himself confronted by several Kings players who couldn’t wait to share a word with him. It seems fair to assume they were not exchanging dinner plans.
Once the puck dropped, Tkachuk knew what he was in for. Whether it was genuine excitement to settle up or just anxiety to get it out of the way and play hockey, the youngster was clearly eager to drop the gloves and throw hands. Probably a bit too eager.
As Tkachuk learned, you don’t get to pick your opponent when it comes to settling up, and Jake Muzzin was not going to be the guy to whom he paid reparations.
That honor went to Brayden McNabb.
It certainly wasn’t the greatest fight, but the animosity was pretty palpable. Both guys wanted to prove a point and do so with heavy, violent blows. In McNabb’s case, he didn’t care if a few of them came as they were lying on the ice — generally a violation of that sacred “code.”
As for Tkachuk, not only was he willing to answer the bell, he seemed to be a guy with a legitimate sense of enjoyment over being the subject of disdain. Just look at that smile — straight out of the antagonist’s textbook.
And just in case you thought he might try to lay low for the rest of the game and refrain from causing any more fireworks…well, good one. The kid was champing at the bit to get another piece of Doughty, and he came oh so close.
It wasn’t the greatest game but it was one that was extremely difficult to look away from, because you didn’t know what was going to happen next and if things were really going to spill over.
It’s a good idea to keep track of a guy like Tkachuk on any given night because he can beat you with skill. But on a night like Wednesday, it was also important to mark that No. 19 any time he stepped on the ice just to prepare for tensions to escalate.
While you certainly don’t want guys going out there and playing dirty and dangerous just for the sake of entertainment value, there’s no denying that pests like Tkachuk can turn normally mundane matchups into notable, intriguing contests. Wednesday’s game between a fringe playoff team and a non-playoff team was the most anticipated game on the schedule, and it was because of a 19-year-old heel.
Playing the game “the right way” is great and admirable — and there are plenty of rising stars in the NHL who do just that — but there’s something to love about a guy who gets you fired up to root against him. The best villains are the ones that can get under your skin in a number of ways, whether it’s skill, attitude or antics.
Sports are more fun when emotions are heightened, and Tkachuk is smugly earning his place as a guy who can raise the stakes.