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SAN JOSE, Calif. – Matthew Tkachuk knows just what kind of grind it is to make it as a National Hockey League player. He got to see first-hand just how his father, Keith, was able to play over the course of an 18-year career.
It also helped that the younger Tkachuk was surrounded by other NHL talent in the various cities his father played.
Tkachuk was too young to remember Danny Briere living with his family while Keith played for the Phoenix Coyotes, but in St. Louis, where he considers home, there was one memory that stood out during his time with a young David Backes.
“He had a couple of buddies over one day and they were downstairs in the basement, and me and my buddy when we were 10 years old went and started playing mini hockey and they joined,” said Tkachuk. “We had a pretty intense game.”
Nearly a decade later, Tkachuk, who's a projected top-10 pick in this month's NHL Draft, could soon be playing against his former mini hockey rival.
“It’s actually crossed my mind once or twice,” he said. “He’s a really nice guy. I think we’d give each other a hug after the game, but during the game I don’t think he’s going to be too easy on me if that’s the case.”
The lessons learned growing up in and around NHL players helped Tkachuk rise through the U.S. National Team Development Program, where he would win back-to-back golds at the U-17 and U-18 World Championships before landing with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights.
An already decorated hockey mantle was further crowded last week when Tkachuk scored the overtime winning goal for the Knights in the Memorial Cup Final.
“[Our] depth and goaltending and team defense was really good,” said Tkachuk about his London squad. “We obviously had the offense and we proved that all year. Our team defense and our goalie were underrated.”
Tkachuk was ranked second on NHL Central Scouting’s final list of North American skaters after a season that saw him score 30 goals and record 107 points in 57 games. He followed that up with 25 goals and 48 points in 22 games between the OHL playoffs and the Memorial Cup. His production this season has the 18-year-old winger believing his draft stock may have taken a boost.
“I think so. I was on one of the last teams to play and I was part of a winning team, and a lot of guys were at home watching it on TV or training and I was still playing,” he said. “I hope it has an effect on some scouts.”
As London soared through the OHL postseason, losing only twice in 18 games, Tkachuk played with with a heavy heart. On the day of Game 2 against Owen Sound, his billet mom, Susan Martellotti, passed away at age 56.
As Tkachuk grieved, hockey became a sanctuary.
“When that happened I made it known then I wanted to play the rest of the playoffs and eventually the Memorial Cup for her and my billet dad,” he said. “I think he was happy and I know she was happy.”
In the two games after Martellotti’s passing, Tkachuk led the Knights in a big way offensively, scoring twice in Game 3 and four times in Game 4 as London took a 3-1 series lead.
— Matthew Tkachuk (@TKACHUKycheese_) March 29, 2016
“I wanted to make those games important for her and it worked,” he said.
Tkachuk, owner of one of hockey's best Twitter handles, will take in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final Monday night at SAP Center along with fellow top prospects Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Alex Nylander. It will end a wild week that saw him go from playing in the Memorial Cup to interviewing with a number of NHL teams at the Combine. It’s a sign that the Draft is upon us and the anxiety levels rise as the prospects wait to know their fates.
Lots of things can still happen before Round 1 arrives on June 24, but Tkachuk said he has thought about what it would be like to play in either an American or Canadian market, something he was asked about during his interviews at the Combine.
During those interviews Tkachuk had to sell himself to teams, instilling confidence in those franchises that picking him wouldnt't be something they would regret down the road. The experience gained from the individual and team accolades he’s received over the last few years was certainly a point he emphasized.
“I know that every team needs winners and they need that winning mentality and I bring that, and I’ve been able to win in the past few years,” he said. “I know that all the championships I’ve been able to be a part of that’s not luck because there’s been so many.
“I just think my competitiveness and work ethic are second to none and they’re pretty good compared to other draft eligible and I hope NHL players.”
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