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 a.m.
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 gravity."
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.