Friday, April 9, 2010

End of the road for 'Big Walt'

Tkachuk to play final home game tonight,
will be honored in post-game ceremony

ST. LOUIS -- David Perron has one wish for Keith Tkachuk, who will play his final home game with the Blues tonight:

"I hope he gets a hat trick," Perron said.

Sounds simple enough, but what a way it would be for 'Big Walt' to go out.

Tkachuk, 38, announced his retirement from the NHL on Wednesday night before the Blues faced the Chicago Blackhawks, and he will do so with 18 terrific years on his resume.

Tkachuk, who will leave the game with over 500 goals, 1,000 points, 1,000 games and 2,000 penalty minutes, made his disclosure to his teammates before an emotional locker room, then made his intentions known in the public eye.

He did not play Wednesday after suffering a lower-body injury Monday but will play tonight and likely Saturday in Nashville to wrap up a career that spanned 1,202 games.

"I was crying, Walt got a little teary-eyed," forward Paul Kariya said. "It’s sad, but it’s also a celebration of an incredible career, a great guy and a great teammate. It's been my great pleasure to play with him. It’s a sad day for the Blues."

Tkachuk, the leader of this team in the truest sense of the word, will pass the baton onto a group of young and vibrant Blues he hopes will one day carry the one goal he was never able to achieve: Lord Stanley's Cup.

"It kind of puts it in perspective that it's going to end for everyone when a guy like that, who almost seems immortal and timeless ... there comes a time when everyone's career is going to end," said forward David Backes, who fits the bill as Tkachuk's replacement on and off the ice. "He's obviously a guy that doesn't show a whole lot of soft emotion and when he brought that out, it was tough to hold back."

The Blues will go through more emotions than usual tonight, when the team will face the Anaheim Ducks at 7 p.m. (FS Midwest, KMOX 1120-AM), then honor Tkachuk with a post-game ceremony that will include both his parents, wife and three kids all by his side.

"It's kind of mixed feelings," said forward Jay McClement, a teammate of Tkachuk's since 2005. "On one end, it's an honor to have played with him, become friends with him and be a part of the last couple of years of his career. It's a pretty special career for sure. The other side is that I'm not going to be able to play with him again. It's going to be neat the last couple games to be involved with that. But I'm happy he's going out on his terms. It's his decision. He's had a great career, a long career.

"There's definitely emotion. This has been his life for 19-20 years. Obviously, it's going to be a life-changing decision. It's obviously going to be more emotional the next couple days here and when it finally comes to an end. We'll all cherish it and take it all in with him."

Tkachuk, who spend four-plus seasons in Winnipeg, another four-plus seasons in Phoenix after the Jets moved to the desert, came to the Blues on the trade deadline of 2001, when general manager Larry Pleau made the blockbuster deal that brought Tkachuk from Phoenix.

Pleau dealt away forwards Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, Jeff Taffe and a 2002 first-round draft pick (which turned out to be Ben Eager).

"Actually, we were in Philadelphia, because we played in Philadelphia that night," Pleau recalled. "I think we played in Minnesota after that and he caught up with the team in Minnesota. ... Time goes by quick.

"Those things take time. I think when you're working on (a trade) like that ... it could come together just like that, but I think in that one there, there was talk for a month, month-and-a-half, couple months."

Tkachuk came in and made an immediate impact for the Blues, tallying eight points over the final 12 regular season games before leading the Blues to the conference finals. They lost to eventual Stanley Cup champ Colorado in five games.

'Big Walt' would go on to score 38 goals and 75 points the following year, his best season point-wise with the Blues and a second-round playoff date.

There would be five playoff appearances with the Blues and one with Atlanta, when Tkachuk agreed to be dealt to the Thrashers in the spring of 2007 before returning as a free agent.

He would spend nine seasons with the Blues and did not want to take away the focus of making a playoff run this season. When the Blues were finally eliminated on Tuesday, he felt like the timing was right.

"It's always tough after you've played that long, but I know it's the right decision," Tkachuk said. "I'm honored that I was able to play that long, and the thing I'm most proud of, I get to retire as a St. Louis Blue. That means the world to me."

And he certainly means the world to them and his teammates, who were still abuzz a day after making his intentions known.

"For a guy that I have the utmost respect for, he's definitely been the most influential teammate that I've ever had," goalie Chris Mason said. "I have so much respect for him. When he announced it, I know it was tough for him. I felt like crying. To see a guy up there you respect so much ... the passion and love for hockey he had, you could tell every time he's at the rink that he's the first guy here. I just really respect how he treated everybody, the guys, the people outside of hockey. I just have nothing but great things to say about him. These last two games, I hope they're special. I'm honored to be a part of these last couple games."

Once Tkachuk hangs up the skates for good Saturday, the questions will become reality: is he a Hall of Fame candidate?

"I think he's a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame, but I don't get to vote," Backes said. "He played in the days where it was pretty much no holds barred. He had to work for every inch he got. He went to the front of the net and scored a ton of goals from there. He's paid the price and put in his time and effort.

"There's not too many guys like Big Walt. He's got his antics, but he's also got his way of leading and showing. It's awesome that I was able to be a teammate and in the locker room and living in the house of such a phenomenal hockey player. He's US-born, so there's a little tie there, too. It's very special and I'm proud and honored to converse with him and watch him on a regular basis."

Pleau agrees.

"His record speaks for itself," he said. "How many players have got 500 goals, (1,000 points), 1,000 games, and 2,000 penalty (minutes). He hasn't done it the easy way, right? Those are Hall of Fame numbers for sure."

Tkachuk was a first-round pick of Winnipeg in 1990. He scored 50 goals for the Jets in 1995-96 and then became the first American-born player to lead the NHL in goals with 52 for the Coyotes in '96-97.

"You knew that when it all came together, he was going to be a force," said former Jets teammate and current Blackhawks color commentator Ed Olczyk. "When you talk about prototypical power forwards, back in the early 1990s, I don't think there was any doubt 'Walt' was a guy that could score, run you through a ditch and then drop the gloves and get his nose dirty."

For those that wonder where 'Walt' was coined, it was Olczyk who came up with the idea, referencing Tkachuk to that of New York Rangers' Walt Tkaczuk.

"He became 'Big Walt' later, but that was by his own doing," Olczyk quipped.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was Tkachuk's first coach here and said his arrival made an immediate impact with the Blues.

"He was the way you want your guys to be," Quenneville said. "Everybody wants those power forwards that give your team and give your lines some room out there. I thought we had a real nice line with him and (Pavol Demitra and Scott Mellanby). I thought Walt provided a lot of space for those guys."

Now, Tkachuk will create space for somebody new to take on a role that was his here for nine seasons. He's going out on his terms and is at peace with his decision.

"He's done a lot as a US-born hockey player and the success he's had, the contributions to young players and organizations starting in Winnipeg, moving through Phoenix and moving here; brief stay in Atlanta, but these guys that are able to play and span a couple generations have learned a lot of things and passed a lot of things on," said Blues coach Davis Payne. "(Tkachuk's voice) will be missed. Not just in the locker room, it's in the change room, it's in the training room, it's in the coach's office ... he's never a guy who's short for words or short for something to say. A guy who's said a lot of the right things, we'll have to have somebody step up and carry that torch forward."

* NOTES -- The Blues recalled forward Lars Eller and defenseman Jonas Junland from Peoria Thursday. Both are expected to be in the lineup tonight because defensemen Barret Jackman (upper-body) and Roman Polak (shoulder) along with forward Patrik Berglund (upper-body) will likely sit out the final two games of the season.

No comments:

Post a Comment