Six weeks have passed since the Calgary Flames faced the Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 11. In the aftermath of the game, threats were made, billboards were installed in Edmonton, and the Battle of Alberta was newly enlivened with hatred and controversy. Matthew Tkachuk was at the centre of it all and came away from the game with many critics. But with his recent play, the Flames forward is silencing those who spoke out against him.
You know the game. On Jan. 11, Tkachuk lined up Zack Kassian with multiple devastating – and predatory – body checks. After the third such hit, Kassian had had enough. He rag-dolled Tkachuk and unloaded bare-knuckle blows while the Flames forward kept his gloves on and protected his head. Or, for Oilers fans and old-time hockey purists, he “turtled.” The incident sparked a debate in the hockey world that tarnished Tkachuk’s reputation in the eyes of many.
Tkachuk, Kassian, and the Battle of Alberta Feud: A Recap
Everyone had an opinion on the incident. Most felt Kassian’s actions were justified. Tkachuk stepped up with the vicious hits, so he had the right to challenge him to a fight. Tkachuk declined, so Kassian’s fight proceeded regardless. From this view, Tkachuk violated the hockey code and was accused of dirty play and cowardice.
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Others sided with Tkachuk’s inaction. The incident occurred in a 3-3 tie late in the second period. He said he’d rather draw the penalty than fight the Oiler heavyweight. His case was supported by the power play goal that came while Kassian was serving four minutes for his eruption. This was the deciding goal in the 4-3 win for the Flames.
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety judged Tkachuk’s hits on Kassian legal. Kassian’s assault of an unwilling combatant was dealt a two-game suspension. Still, Tkachuk faced the brunt of the criticism for the style of his body checks and his resistance to the fight.
Tkachuk Fights Kassian and Bear in Rematches
The Battle of Alberta rematch following the Jan. 11 game generated more hype than any NHL regular season game in recent memory. The Flames and Oilers faced off in a home-and-home series on Jan. 29 and Feb. 1.
But before the rematch came the Jan. 25 NHL All-Star Game. Oiler Leon Draisaitl fueled matters with threats to leave the ice if Tkachuk joined him during the game. This turned out to be an exaggeration. He even set up Draisaitl for a goal with a no-look drop pass on the way to an All-Star Game victory for the Pacific Division.
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Amid the noise of the initial Kassian incident, Tkachuk reminded the league of his unquestioned skill during the All-Star Game. He was one of the game’s more talented and flashy players in the company of the NHL’s very best.
Then came the much-anticipated rematch. Despite those who prefer to call him a turtle, Tkachuk is game for a fair fight. Kassian wanted “big boy hockey,” and that’s what he got when Tkachuk initiated a scrap with him on Jan. 29. The fight was brief and the score seemed to be settled when Kassian won. The Flames took the game 4-3 once again.
But three nights later, on Feb. 1, the Battle of Alberta once again turned violent. A line brawl included a fight between Tkachuk and Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear. More notably, the scrum saw goaltenders Cam Talbot and Mike Smith square off in a fight won by the Oilers netminder. This time around, the Oilers convincingly outperformed the Flames in an 8-3 final.
Flames Tkachuk Fighting More Since Controversy
Now in his fourth season in the NHL, Tkachuk is no stranger to dropping the gloves. He entered the 2019-20 season with seven fights in his three-year career. It’s not a key feature of his game, but he’s a willing combatant when the correct moment for a middle-weight scrap arises.
But as it happens, Tkachuk’s fight with Kassian on Jan. 29 was his first of the 2019-20 season. His second, with Bear, followed in the very next game.
It’s safe to say that Tkachuk took notice of the exceedingly negative press he received for the initial Kassian debacle. He may stand by how he handled himself that game, but it’s difficult to ignore the sudden uptick in fights in its aftermath. For reference, he now has four fights in a span of just 11 games after starting the season with zero in 50 games. His other seven fights came across three seasons and 224 games.
Tkachuk is a proud individual who comes from a family of hockey royalty. The well-spoken 22-year-old displays leadership for the Flames on and off the ice. His show of skill at the NHL All-Star Game spoke for itself, but he began to reform his league-wide reputation with the two Battle of Alberta fights. Since then, he’s dropped the gloves twice more. He fought J.T. Miller of the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 8 and Jeremy Lauzon of the Boston Bruins on Feb. 21.
The fight with Miller came off the face-off following an early Canucks goal, while the duel with Lauzon followed a battle between the Bruins defender and Tkachuk’s linemate, Andrew Mangiapane. Tkachuk is restating his commitment to his team while forcing critics to see his game anew. He will fight in response to hits he throws, to motivate his team, or to defend a teammate.
Tkachuk Is Backing His Game with Consistent Offense
Tkachuk’s had a busy start to 2020. But even with the NHL All-Star Game weekend, the Battle of Alberta showdowns, and the escalated fight total, he has found a way to step up his offensive game.
Tkachuk, in fact, was mired in a scoring drought prior to the NHL All-Star break. Over an eight-game stretch from Jan. 2 to Jan. 18, he registered just two assists. But since the All-Star break, he’s been on an offensive tear. He is quietly thriving on the team’s second line with centre Mikael Backlund and Mangiapane. In 12 games since the break, he has 13 points and has been held off the scoresheet just one time.
Not that the two players are comparable on offense, but since the All-Star break, Tkachuk’s foe, Kassian, has registered two points in eight games. More notably, the Oilers winger has missed games as part of a seven-game suspension for an inexcusable kicking incident on Feb. 13.
Tkachuk Is Leaving Little for Critics to Scrutinize
No doubts exist regarding Tkachuk’s abilities with a puck on his stick. The versatile winger also leads the wave of using the between-the-legs shot as a legitimate scoring move. He dazzled with a one-of-a-kind version of the shot in overtime against the Nashville Predators back in October. He followed it up on Feb. 10 with a convincing version of the move against the San Jose Sharks.
Along with these highlight-reel goals, Tkachuk can agitate like few others in today’s NHL. His play nearly single-handedly revived the hatred in the Battle of Alberta. But this isn’t new for the fourth-year Flame.
He made a name for himself during his rookie and sophomore seasons as a feisty agitator with offensive upside. He soon confirmed a serious offensive ability when he posted 77 points in 80 games last season. He’s on pace for around 70 points this season as well.
The few who call Tkachuk a turtle will likely continue to do so. His supporters also can’t deny that he looked to obliterate a vulnerable Kassian on Jan. 11. But the Flames star does fight, and his recent fights have carried purpose. Tkachuk has recovered his reputation with his fists. He’s made his statement clear. But he also scores goals that few other players in the league can replicate. His team should hope that he reduces the frequency of the fights so he can remain at his most effective on offense.
On occasion, Tkachuk crosses the line. He’s once again proved that he’ll answer for it. But it’s this edge that drives his opponents mad. Just ask Drew Doughty. (Doughty will probably tell you even if you don’t ask him.) Tkachuk has emerged as the identity of the Flames, and he’s already leaving behind the slights to his name that followed his mid-January run-in with Kassian.
Lucas Anderson lives in Calgary, AB, and covers the Calgary Flames for THW. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto, where he completed his Master’s in Cinema Studies. Lucas writes on topics including sports, film, visual culture, and history. He still thinks about the Atlanta Thrashers, his former favourite NHL team.