If there’s one player on the Ottawa Senators who is probably safe from the physical onslaught that will be doled out by Matthew Tkachuk, when the Calgary Flames visit the country’s capital on Saturday afternoon, it’s likely to be the player with the same name on the back of his jersey.
But brotherly love is hardly about to melt the ice at Canadian Tire Centre once the puck drops either.
The pair may have promised their mother, Chantal, that they wouldn’t drop the gloves with each other before their first NHL matchup last February, but entering their fourth head-to-head encounter as professionals, all that either cares about is the two points.
“You get into battles, but once the puck drops it’s a normal game and we both want it,” Matthew Tkachuk said. “But, you know, we try to stay probably away from each other. The biggest thing about playing each other now, especially now we’ve got a couple games under our belts, is going out and getting the win.”
With the Flames sporting a 3-0 record in the three previous Tkachuk Bowls, and Matthew owning a 3-1 edge in points in those games, it’s no surprise that the elder of the two is looking to continue that streak. With Calgary back on top of the Pacific Division after his shootout winner over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, the Flames will be hoping to cap off a successful Eastern road trip with a 2-1 record.
After Saturday’s game, they head home for a meeting with the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues on Tuesday before heading north to Edmonton 24 hours later for the latest instalment of the red-hot Battle of Alberta. The highlight of that game will be the first on-ice meeting with Oilers forward Zack Kassian since he took umbrage with Matthew Tkachuk’s body-checks last weekend.
But while some have been critical of the 22-year-old’s refusal to drop his gloves and trade blows with public enemy No. 1 in Southern Alberta, Tkachuk himself got what he wanted the most – the victory.
“I take pride in being a physical player that can put the puck in the net and play offence and just do whatever you can to help the team win,” he said. “But being physical and being chippy, all that stuff, that’s part of the way I play, that’s a part of my DNA.”
The man who drafted Tkachuk at sixth over all in the 2016 draft has no issue with his style of play, and actively encourages him to keep doing what he’s doing.
“He’s a wonderful guy,” Brian Burke said on Sportsnet’s Tim and Sid show this week before qualifying his use of the word ‘wonderful’ (Burke was Calgary’s president of hockey operations from 2013-18).
“[However] he’s a pain in the butt. He’s a full-time pain with no coffee breaks.”
Burke isn’t alone in that assessment. Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews, a close friend of Matthew Tkachuk who once played alongside him in the U.S. national-team program, says the fellow Scottsdale, Ariz., native is someone he would much rather play with than against.
“He gets under other guys’ skin,” Matthews said. “He does a really good job at it, and to go with it he is a really good player.”
Playing the skillful agitator is something that both brothers have in common. Former Flames forward Gary Roberts, who trains both of them each summer at his NHL players camp in Aurora, Ont., says their take-no-prisoners playing style reminds him of his own career, calling them “old-school” athletes.
While both are flattered to be compared to Roberts, and refer to him as a mentor who has had a measured impact on the success they have had so early in their NHL careers, both also credit their DNA.
For that they can thank their father, Keith, a former first-round pick himself who turned into a burly 500-goal scorer who played 1,201 NHL games.
“I just think that my brother and I have learned so much from my dad and he was part of that era of those big, fast power forwards who weren’t afraid to show off their skill, hit you or fight you,” Brady Tkachuk said.
“I don’t know if you consider that old school, but we’re the type of guys that are power forwards who aren’t afraid to answer the bell but also play their heart out every single game.”
Brady Tkachuk went fourth over all – the highest of the three NHL-playing Tkachuks – in the 2018 draft, and had an instant impact on a rebuilding Ottawa team. The 6-foot-4, 212-pound winger had 22 goals and 23 assists in 71 games in his rookie year to place fifth on the team in scoring, and fifth in voting for the Calder Trophy as the top NHL rookie.
Former teammate Cody Ceci, who played alongside Brady last year in Ottawa before joining Toronto in the off-season, said the intensity that players such as the Tkachuk brothers bring to the rink every day is an inspiration for other teams.
However, he admitted that not everyone feels the same way as him.
“It rubs some people the wrong way,” Ceci said. “But at the end of the day it’s great, it’s contagious for your own teammates to work as hard as you’re working and they are definitely guys that you can fall behind and they lead by example.”
The 20-year-old Brady says that competition between him and his brother has been a constant since they were born, whether it’s been hockey, baseball or fighting in the backyard. However, he also credits his sister, Taryn – the youngest of the three siblings – for pushing both of them.
“She’s always joined us in sports activities, whether it was hockey where it got physical, she was right in there, too,” Brady said of his sister, who took up field hockey and outscored every other high-school player in Missouri by 51 points last year.
While Brady is desperate to break through and get a win over his brother’s team, it’s to help the Senators – 30th out of 31 teams – reach the kind of lofty perch that the Flames occupy in the standing more than any personal vendetta.
“I wouldn’t call it a rivalry almost,” he said. “We’re both rooting so much for one another that we’d never try to get an upper hand on one another.”
Matthew, the elder Tkachuk by 21 months, backs up that sentiment.
“We’ve been competing in every single thing we’ve done since the beginning of not only our hockey careers but honestly, our lives, as long as I can remember,” he said. “There’s zero rivalry … but the competitiveness and the competing in whatever you’re doing, it was a big part of what made us into the player and person we are today.”
The brothers are ready to take their games to the next level. While Matthew has had two trips to the playoffs in four seasons, both of those excursions flamed out in the opening round, Brady is busy trying to lead the retooling Senators out of the postseason wilderness.
However, both had a front-row seat last spring as their friend Robert Thomas, who played with Matthew as the pair won a Memorial Cup with the OHL’s London Knights in 2016, lived in the Tkachuk family home in St. Louis.
Thomas had a rookie season for the ages, capping off a worst-to-first turnaround for the Blues – for whom Keith works as a scout – by securing the first Stanley Cup for the franchise.
While both Matthew and Brady were happy for their friend, it lit a fire under both to do something similar for their own teams.
“The mecca of an NHL player is winning the Stanley Cup,” Matthew said. “… All we want to do is win. All the other stuff that comes with it, great, whatever, but at the end of the day, you want to be the last team standing at the end.”