Ask acquaintances of winnipeg Jet left wing Keith Tkachuk's to describe him, and watch the pattern emerge.
"Definite mean streak," says Jet general manager Mike Smith.
"Hits to hurt people," says coach John Paddock.
"He's no cheap-shot artist," says defenseman and captain Dean Kennedy, "but he likes to hurt guys."
That inclination qualified the 6'2", 215-pound Tkachuk (pronounced kuh-CHUK) as a novelty when he arrived in Winnipeg two seasons ago. With a roster top-heavy with small, speedy players, the Jets were easily bullied. Smith wised up last year, trading for tough guys Kris King and Tie Domi.
But his team's most effective grinder was already on board. Winnipeg picked Tkachuk, now 21, in the first round of the 1990 draft, expecting him to blossom sometime after the '94 Olympics. He is ahead of schedule. In the winter of '92, Tkachuk went from being a bit player on Team USA in Albertville to being an important contributor in Winnipeg. His physical style made him more effective in the NHL's smaller rinks than he had been in the Olympics. Last season Tkachuk had 28 goals, plus four more in the playoffs, and led the Jets in what he calls "Gordie Howe hat tricks," which consist of "a goal, an assist and a fight."
The Jets see Tkachuk as a power forward in the Rick Tocchet-Cam Neely mold. Says Paddock, "He'll score 35 to 40 goals a year, get 200 penalty minutes and bang everything in sight."
Tkachuk has had to improve his skating and polish his puckhandling skills since joining the Jets. The banging part, however, comes naturally to the son of a Boston fireman who grew up in Jefferies Point, a section of East Boston. His brother, Kevin, is 11 months older. "Everyone in the neighborhood knew that if you messed with Kevin, you messed with me, and vice versa," says Keith. When Keith was 11, the family moved to Medford, outside Boston. He went to Maiden Catholic High and played a year at Boston University before making the Olympic team at 19.
"In Jefferies Point there was a street hockey rink right near my house," he says. "I was always bigger than everybody else when I was younger, and I was the only guy on our team who could fight."
"He thinks he's tough," says Smith, "but his mother is about five-two, and he's scared to death of her." Indeed, Geraldine Tkachuk, nèe Geraldine Fitzgerald (whose brother's son, Tom, plays for the Florida Panthers), "runs our house," according to Keith. If he did get into a neighborhood scrape, he knew better than to let his mother find out. Says Geraldine, "I was always telling him, 'Keith, your body's grown, but your mind hasn't.' "
Last season Tkachuk had a spell where he was skating on a line with Teemu Selanne and Alexei Zhamnov, and he began to get too fancy. Smith took him aside in St. Louis and said, "Teemu and Alexei are ballet dancers. You're a construction worker. Don't forget it."
Tkachuk hasn't. After all, he'll be 22 in March. His mind has caught up with his body.
Winnipeg's tough and fiery forward makes his mark with what he calls "Gordie Howe hat tricks."