The subject, once a night-crawling, hell-raising party beast,
has mellowed. He is older, wiser and engaged to be married. Of
course, Keith Tkachuk of the Phoenix Coyotes would be happy to
discuss his metamorphosis, but tonight isn't good for him. This
evening, the Coyotes' captain announces regretfully, he has a
date with his teammates, with whom he will remain out until 4:30
Fear not. Our party-animal-cleans-up-his-act angle is not
necessarily shot. That bacchanalia last week happened to be
Tkachuk's bachelor party, and it did not prevent him from
arriving at practice the next morning bright-eyed and 30 minutes
early. To what did Tkachuk owe his surprising sprightliness? His
no-shot policy. "I stuck with beer," he said.
This qualifies, for Tkachuk, as ironclad discipline, and it will
be cited, for the purposes of this article, as an indication of
the 24-year-old's increasing maturity. Other encouraging signs:
With 37 goals in 60 games through Sunday, Tkachuk (pronounced
kuh-CHUK) is on his way to his second straight 50-goal season.
He spent part of last summer's vacation establishing himself as
the game's preeminent power forward, helping lead the U.S. to
the gold medal in the World Cup of Hockey in September. In that
tournament the 6'2", 210-pound left wing scored five goals in
seven games and struck a blow, literally, for countless NHL
players. In an early-round game against Canada, Tkachuk squared
off with Colorado Avalanche winger Claude Lemieux, one of the
league's most despised players. In the ensuing fracas, Tkachuk
broke Lemieux's nose. Says Phoenix winger Jim McKenzie, "There
were a lot of toothless smiles around the league."
Although Tkachuk doesn't drop his gloves as much as he used
to--with his fierce reputation, his fistic talents are tested
less often--he merrily performs hockey's most unpleasant chores,
working the corners and positioning himself in front of the
opponents' net, a bull's-eye painted on his back. For such an
adept pugilist, he has surprisingly soft hands. He is
exceptionally strong, and he's tough to knock off the puck, a
trait center Bob Corkum attributes to Tkachuk's "low center of
Center Craig Janney elaborates: "He's got a big ass."
And a strong back. Last August, Phoenix obtained star center
Jeremy Roenick in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. But
Roenick has struggled, with only 16 goals at week's end, leaving
Tkachuk to carry the Coyotes in their inaugural season in the
desert. After a slow start he has helped pull Phoenix, 27-29-4
through Sunday, into the playoff picture.
Tkachuk, a fireman's son from the working-class Boston suburb of
Medford, Mass., has fallen hard for the Valley of the Sun.
Cruising from last Thursday's practice to the Phoenix Country
Club, where he would squeeze in 18 holes, he exulted, "Is this
unbelievable? It's February, and I'm going from hockey practice
to the golf course."
Also scarcely believable is Tkachuk's assertion, made during
that same drive, that he misses his team's old home in Manitoba.
The statement strains credulity not just because winter in
Winnipeg is indistinguishable from winter in, say, Nome. While
Tkachuk enjoyed a breakthrough season in '95-96, he also saw
Jets fans--and, in his opinion, Jets management--turn on him.
Blackhawks president Bill Wirtz started it. After the '94-95
season, Tkachuk became a restricted free agent, and Wirtz signed
him to a five-year, $17.2 million offer sheet, putting
cash-strapped Winnipeg in a cruel bind. The team's poverty had
already forced its owners to announce that after the '95-96
season the Jets would be sold and moved. Now, thanks to Wirtz,
the Jets would either lose their cornerstone or spend a ruinous
amount to keep him.
The Jets matched the offer sheet. Then, in a move that had about
it a whiff of vindictiveness, the team held a press conference
to announce that Tkachuk had been relieved of his captaincy and
that the C would be worn by Kris King, Tkachuk's close friend
and fellow left wing.
Winnipeg fans needed no prompting to boo Tkachuk, who, for
reasons he never explained, publicly burned a hundred-dollar
bill while out with teammates one night last season. Embittered
by the imminent loss of their club, the fans found this young
American a convenient target for their displeasure. Says Coyotes
general manager Bobby Smith, "Keith became a symbol of why
small-market Canadian cities were losing their teams."
Things had come to a vexing pass for Tkachuk, whose main hobby,
besides golf, is quoting dialogue from the movie Slap Shot,
whose star, Paul Newman, he resembles and whose characters
sometimes seem to be his role models. One winter morning when
Keith was about 12, his father, John, descended into the
basement, which Keith, his brother Kevin, their first cousin Tom
Fitzgerald (now of the Florida Panthers) and assorted friends
used as a venue for savage games of ball hockey. John felt a
draft. Keith, it turned out, had knocked a hole in the wall and
then, in hopes of avoiding detection, pushed the sofa in front
of the breach.
The anecdote seems to tell us as much about Tkachuk's
intelligence as it does about the intensity of his play. After
starring at Malden (Mass.) Catholic, he played one season,
1990-91, for Boston University. Then he played for the U.S.
Olympic team in the '92 Winter Olympics in Albertville.
Following the Games he reported directly to the Show. He was 19.
"He had a lot of college left in him," says King, straining to
be diplomatic. "He took full advantage of his free time."
Tkachuk became quite the boulevardier in Winnipeg; he was once
described by a local columnist as having "more hormones than
functioning brain cells." When he did something outlandish--for
instance, rolling his car and then leaving the scene of the
accident before the police arrived, as he did in June
1994--everyone in the city seemed to know about it. Says Joe
Walker, who worked as a goal judge for the Jets and who took
Tkachuk under his wing, "This city's so small, there's no place
Tkachuk played hard on the ice too. In his first full year he
had 28 goals and 201 penalty minutes. The following season,
'93-94, John Paddock, then Winnipeg's coach, made the
21-year-old Tkachuk the youngest captain in franchise history.
When someone notes the gray hair that has begun to fleck his
temples, Tkachuk says, "Try being captain of the Winnipeg Jets
at the age of 21, and see what it does to your hair."
The next season he had 41 goals, earning renown as one of the
NHL's best young power forwards. But something even more
important happened to him. "That's when I met Chantal," he says.
About three years ago Tkachuk and Chantal Oster met on a blind
date. "We clicked immediately," says Oster, a Winnipeg native
six months Tkachuk's junior. "He struck me right away as a
down-to-earth, good-hearted person." They were scheduled to be
married in a family-only ceremony on Feb. 28. Was Tkachuk
helpful in planning the wedding? Oster pauses, then says, "He
was totally involved in the tasting of the food."
Tkachuk credits Oster with helping him through last season's
difficulties. Before he took the ice for the first game of his
last year in Winnipeg, he also got advice from Walker on how to
handle the boo birds: "Pop some big goals, crank a couple guys
into the wall. They'll come around." And so they did. Nothing
like a 50-goal season to help you work your way back into a
city's good graces. When Tkachuk arrived in Phoenix after the
World Cup, first-year coach Don Hay restored his captaincy.
Tkachuk and Oster lack definite honeymoon plans. "We're looking
forward to settling into our house on Cape Cod," she says. The
newly remodeled summer home borders the par-3 11th hole of a
golf club at which they are members. Late one afternoon last
August they decided to play the back nine. As they stood on the
11th tee, Tkachuk gave Oster some pointers, then told her to
take a few practice swings while he hit his shot. As she did, he
suddenly shouted, "I think I got a hole in one! Go check the
When she did, she started crying. In the cup she had found an
open box containing a diamond ring. "She should've known
something was up when I agreed to play with her in the first
place," says Tkachuk, ever the romantic.
"Needless to say, we didn't continue the round," says Oster.
When she is out of earshot, he says, "But I wanted to."
Oster's influence on her fiance is most evident in the number of
nights he spends at home. "We watch a lot of videos," she says.
The domestication of Keith Tkachuk has not come without a price:
By Oster's estimation, she has sat through Slap Shot with him 12
In some areas he refuses to compromise. The basement of the
summer house is one such area. "It's beautiful," says Tkachuk.
"There's a poolroom with a pool table, a card room for card
games. There's a locker room with lockers and showers, so the
guys can come in off the golf course, shower and change right
There are no NO GIRLS signs posted. Nor are any necessary. The
basement's four urinals make the point.
Tkachuk continues: "We've got a weight room, and what else? Oh,
yeah. The bar."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO Tkachuk has trained his sights on hitting the 50-goal mark for the second consecutive season. [Keith Tkachuk in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO Once a carouser, Tkachuk is a little less cheeky since meeting Oster. [Chantal Oster and Keith Tkachuk]