The first memory Matthew Tkachuk has about hockey isn’t even actually his. It’s a story his mother loves to tell.
Tkachuk was 3 and his family had just moved to Missouri after Keith Tkachuk got traded to the Blues. He had never played a game of organized hockey before and his first one was a big event.
Chantal Tkachuk roped together a group to come watch and everyone figured it’d go well for the eldest son of an NHL All-Star.
Apparently, the right wing wasn’t always destined for superstardom.
“I guess I was like by far the worst player out there,” Tkachuk said. “She thinks that’s hilarious.”
It was Monday and the 25-year-old winger had just wrapped up a practice at FLA Live Arena to prepare for the 2023 Stanley Cup Final.
Less 24 hours earlier, he was seated next to Shaquille O’Neal on the set of TNT’s “NBA Tip-Off,” cracking jokes at the expense of the Basketball Hall of Fame center and listening to Hall of Fame forward Charles Barkley tell him about how much better he is than his father. Less than a week earlier, he finished off the Panthers’ third-round sweep of the Hurricanes by scoring his third game-winning goal in four games with 4.9 seconds left in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
He was now starting to think about the challenge ahead, one his father never got to face: The Stanley Cup Final begins Saturday against the Golden Knights at Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena and Florida is four wins away from its first Stanley Cup.
No matter what happens, Tkachuk has ascended into rare territory for a hockey player in the United States, particularly in a place like Sunrise. Tkachuk, who was born in Arizona and raised in St. Louis, has been in the middle of nearly every big moment of one of the unlikely sports stories of the year.
The Panthers, who made the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs in the last week of the regular season by a single point, are into the Cup Final for only the second time thanks to 12 wins and 11 of those are by one or two goals, six have taken overtime and six have required a comeback, and four have ended with goals by Tkachuk on the final shot of the game, including three in the East finals.
“Everyone’s witnessed it. It’s pretty special,” six-time All-Star center Eric Staal said last week. “This is going to continue for him. This is who he is. He’s not afraid of these times or these moments and that’s what makes him special.
“These are moments that he’s built and made for.”
A star is born
Tkachuk doesn’t remember his first game-winning goal, either. He does, however, remember the first time he scored in overtime in an NHL game. It’s a hard one to forget.
It was Halloween of 2019 and Tkachuk was in the early stages of his first All-Star season with the Flames. Calgary was down by three goals to the Predators at the start of the third period in Nashville and stormed back within one in the final minute when Tkachuk scored a game-tying goal on a rebound with 38.4 seconds left. The Flames and Predators then nearly made it all the way to a shootout when Tkachuk, with less than a second left in overtime, chased down another rebound the slot, stuck his stick between his legs — because it was the only way he could get to the puck — and rifled a game-winning goal over the right shoulder of four-time All-Star goaltender Pekka Rinne.
Until this spring, it was probably the best goal he ever scored.
“Nothing beats playoff overtime goals,” he said. “They’re the best.”
There always was a knack for flair and drama, at least once he got past his initial on-ice embarrassment and it made sense he was sow to start.
In Arizona, there wasn’t much hockey, even though his father was a star for the newly relocated Coyotes. Tkachuk played baseball and golf, and rode horses — “doing all the things Arizona kids do,” he said — and only skated a handful of times until the family moved to the Midwestern United States.
In Missouri, he found a more established hockey culture — and his father became very involved with the Blues’ youth programs — and he got to play with several future NHL players, including Coyotes star Clayton Keller.
He and Keller were often linemates as kids, a terror for opposing teams to deal with, and yet Keller’s main memory about what they did together was their fashion sense.
“We both had bright yellow gloves and people would always kind of make fun of us for it,” the All-Star winger said, “but they looked good with the jerseys.”
Tkachuk’s confidence and swagger, apparently, was always there.
His competitiveness was, too. Keller remembers some “pretty rough” games of mini knee hockey in the Tkachuks’ basement and defenseman Casey Fitzgerald, a second cousin of Tkachuk’s, has memories of how Tkachuk and younger brother Brady Tkachuk — now an All-Star winger for the Senators — “would go at it big time” when the family would spend parts of the summer together in Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
Later on, Fitzgerald and Tkachuk lived down the street from each other in Michigan when they were both in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (NTDP) in high school and their 1-on-1 basketball games turned into wars.
“He would never want to lose,” said Fitzgerald, who played one game in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs when star defenseman Aaron Ekblad was out with an injury. “That’s not like a switch you can turn off and on.”
A superstar is born
Don Granato watched Tkachuk score his ECF-winning goal last week and thought about all the ways the American forward changed in his two years coaching him with the USA NTDP.
Tkachuk is now self-effacing about skating ability, but he wasn’t as a 15-year-old when he got to the NTDP in 2013.
“He tried to go 1-on-1 a lot and toe drag a lot and I used to tease him about it a little bit,” said Granato, who’s now the Sabres coach. “I would say, ‘You like to score?’ And he’d obviously say, ‘Yeah,’ and I said, ‘No, you like to stick handle.’”
He couldn’t think of a specific game-winner from Tkachuk’s NTDP days, either. Still, this run doesn’t surprise him.
“He always had ice in his veins,” Granato said. “He always wanted the puck.”
Scoring a game-winning goal in hockey isn’t as simple as a game-winning shot in basketball, though.
If the Heat is down by a point in the final seconds of a game in the 2023 NBA Finals, star forward Jimmy Butler can dribble out the clock and take a shot at the buzzer. In hockey, the puck rarely sticks with one player for more than a few seconds, which is what makes this run by Tkachuk so incredible.
It’s also why the series-winning goal, Granato said, exemplified everything Tkachuk does so well.
The final seconds ticked away in the third period and Tkachuk wound up with the puck behind the goal. He was aware of the clock, the positioning of the goalie, the shape of Carolina’s penalty-killing defense and the space he could get to in front of the net. He wheeled around, waited until chaos along the crease took star goaltender Frederik Andersen out of the play and fired into an almost-empty net.
“He’s smart. He knows his skill set, he knows his identity, he knows situations,” Granato said. “It’s situational awareness: I know exactly how much time and space I have to get to a certain point where it’s going to be virtually an empty-net goal. He reads layers of, I can influence this to open up this in this particular situation, and other times, I have nothing here, or, It’s too much of a risk, so I’ll just put the puck in.
“The message to him was protect the puck, learn to protect the puck, learn in situations when to use that skill that he had. The great hands are there, but you can’t impose your will anymore. You have to wait and create vulnerability, and he waits for vulnerability or he creates it and he really, really focused on that.”
He’s now uniquely suited to come through in the clutch over and over again because of how often he’s patrolling the area around the goal, especially on power plays and two of his three game-winning goals in Round 3 came with an extra-man advantage.
“He’s not afraid to go to those heavy areas. He’ll take a puck to the net,” coach Paul Maurice said. “He’s very comfortable in that position, so he puts himself in position to be a difference maker and certainly he relishes it.”
It isn’t the flashiest way to play — he doesn’t go end to end for breakaway goals like superstar center Connor McDavid or launch rockets from the face-off circles like superstar left wing Alex Ovechkin — until it makes for moments like the ones he has had in the Cup playoffs and now there might be no bigger star in the sport, especially if he can follow up his Hart Memorial Trophy-nominated regular season with a Cup.
No other NHL players are getting invited onto the set of TNT’s Emmy Award-winning NBA show, after all.
This stuff matters to Tkachuk, too. His dad, for a time, was the biggest star Arizona ever had and Tkachuk then saw what his father’s presence meant to growing the game in St. Louis, inspiring a whole generation of future NHL players.
He wants to do the same in South Florida and, as much as these highlights help, he doesn’t seek out the spectacular. It’s just a product of who he is and how he plays.
“The best way to make it grow is being in the community, helping out or having a winning team, and a great team for years and years to come, and doing what we’re doing this year,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that hockey’s grown a ton just in one year.”