Ownership, management pay homage for
great career; Blues expected to retain Payne
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Friday was the fans' way of thanking Keith Tkachuk for a Hall of Fame career in the NHL.
On Tuesday, Tkachuk was once again being thanked for 18 terrific years as a hockey player by the Blues and the management team, but 'Big Walt' was on hand not only to officially announce his retirement from the game but to give thanks to those who were his inspiration and to those who followed his career -- the fans.
On hand were Blues owners Dave Checketts, Mike McCarthy and Tom Stillman, team president John Davidson and general manager Larry Pleau, the man responsible for bringing Tkachuk to St. Louis in 2001 and the man who stole the show Tuesday in the atrium area of Scottrade Center.
Pleau, who will retire himself this summer as the team's GM, didn't always see eye-to-eye with the strong voice of Tkachuk during his time here. But the two were able to do whatever it took to make this franchise a success.
In un-Pleau-like fashion, the Blues' GM turned the tribute into a mini roast of Tkachuk, to the applause of those in attendance which included a number of fans.
"Four o’clock in the morning Walt ... that’s when we finalized it," Pleau said, describing that day on March 13, 2001, the day he acquired Tkachuk from the Phoenix Coyotes. "... Everybody asked me what did we need. We needed personality. I think we all know that that's what we got. We got personality from Walt.
"But it can't be all nice today. That's impossible. Can't let you off the hook."
Tkachuk would later would quip, "4 a.m. How much were you drinking when you traded for me?"
The crowd voiced its approval in laughter.
Pleau continued, "Chaser (referring to Blues color commentator Kelly Chase), when is training camp for the alumni? Walt's worried about it already. But I’m going to tell him there's no weigh-in. He doesn't have to worry about it."
That pot shot was a reference to the first season out of the lockout when Tkachuk was suspended by the Blues for reporting out of shape. He did not play any organized hockey in 2004-05, the lockout season.
But say what you want about 'Big Walt,' but it's a rare commodity to get a player of size and skill. This is who the Blues got. This is who the Winnipeg Jets got when they made Tkachuk their top pick (19th overall) in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft.
Tkachuk is the first US-born player to score 50 or more goals and is one of two players (former Blue Brendan Shanahan is the other) to score 1,000 points, accumulate 2,200 penalty minutes and score 200 power play goals.
But the time had come to pass the torch, as many of his Blues teammates were on hand to support their veteran leader.
"It was a process," the 38-year-old Tkachuk said of retirement. "I knew it was coming. I didn't want to do anything because I was hoping to be in the playoffs, but once we got eliminated, I met with JD and Larry together and told them what my plans were and they were supportive ... I called Mr. Checketts. I knew something like this was going to happen and this was probably going to be my last year.
"My body's taken a beating. I'm just not the same player I used to be and it's time to let somebody else play."
Tkachuk was the first player Checketts met when he purchased the team in 2006 and was impressed immediately with the players he acquired and the direction it would go with Tkachuk at the head of the pack.
"I suspected we might be doing this at the end of June, but here we are in mid-April," Checketts said. "Other than raising the Stanley Cup in your final game, I could not have pictured or thought of a better ending, Walt, to your career than what transpired Friday night here at Scottrade Center. I do have to ask this question, though: 'With how you played in the third period there on Friday night, are you sure you want to hang it up?' I think you could lace up the skates every now and then ...
"We’re building an organization with young players, drafting and developing. Well, you better have somebody in that locker room that they can look to as an example. And I can’t think of anyone better than the way you have been."
Checketts continued, "I have been fortunate in my life and in particularly in my career in sports to be around great power forwards. Most notably, we drafted a power forward in the NBA named Karl Malone while I was with the (Utah) Jazz. His game was actually similar to yours, Walt. He scored a lot. He sacrificed his body. He carried his team on his shoulders, just as you have. And you might note that this past week, he was voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, just as I hope very much that you will be voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"Later in my sports career, I was around a great power forward named Adam Graves with the Rangers, a guy that spent a lot of time in front of the net and scored a lot. More importantly, Adam Graves was a wonderful guy in the community, and Walt, none of our players have done more than you have done in the St. Louis community."
What will stick with Checketts was when Tkachuk proclaimed Friday that the Blues would win the Stanley Cup and to trust the process, which touched off a big roar from the sellout crowd following a 6-3 win over Anaheim.
"To hear Walt say it at center ice meant a lot to me," Checketts said. "... Walt, truer words could not have been said more eloquently. You will always be a St. Louis Blue. And when we do hoist that Cup, I can't wait to see your teammates pass it to you, for you to raise it high because you'll deserve it just as much as they will.
"I'll never forget the night when you lost a few teeth standing in front of the net. One more example of your sacrifice for our club and our organization. You even gave up the 'A' because you knew it was time. Most importantly, you always claimed that you loved to be in St. Louis. And I am proud to announce, ladies and gentleman, next year, once we have a clear-cut schedule, we will have a night at Scottrade Center to pay tribute and to honor Keith Tkachuk."
Davidson, who traded Tkachuk to Atlanta in 2007 at the trade deadline, only to resign him in the summer of 2007, stepped to the podium to may homage. He first met Tkachuk at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, France.
"When you look over at Keith’s family, you look there and say, 'You know what, that's a hockey family.' Isn't that a great thing," Davidson said.
"Big heart, yes. He doesn’t want you to know that most of the time. A rough kid from Boston. But actually when you get to know him, he has a heart the size of Boston. For what he has done in this community and for our franchise has really been quite remarkable. He doesn’t like to have people know about it. But he’s done more than his part, more than his share. And it’s showing. It's showing by the way you see the family being raised, it shows by the support that we saw from the fans here during the last game against Anaheim and the way they responded."
Davidson went on to present Tkachuk with an alumni jersey.
"There's a tradition in hockey every year, it's called the rookie dinner," Davidson said. "I can hardly wait til Walt takes all these alumni guys out to the rookie dinner and have to pay for that one. That will be beautiful, won't it?"
And then there was Pleau, who continued his "roast" of the guy he gave up three players (Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, prospect Jeff Taffe) and a first-round draft pick to acquire.
He shared a story when the team was looking to give Tkachuk a contract extension, which included Pleau, former Blues President Mark Sauer and Tkachuk's agent Bob Murray.
"We get up to Bob's office and the secretary brings us in, makes us sit there for about 10 minutes," Pleau recalled. "That’s the strategy, we all know. Make 'em wait out there, sweat a little bit. It worked well. So the secretary (finally) says, ‘Come on this way,’ and we follow her. We’re walking in and we look to the right and there’s the board room. We look into the board room, Mark Sauer is behind me, and we look into the board room, and Mark says to me: ‘She’s there, Chantal (Tkachuk's wife), he brought his wife ... you’re doing all the talking!’”
Pleau continued, "What am I going to remember about Walt? ... It can't all be good, you know Walt. I had to get you a little bit. I can tell a couple of more, but I’m not gonna. What I’m going to remember is ... a big heart. He’d do anything for the players, anything for the trainers, anybody around him. I’m going to remember his last shift, because it was his longest shift ever in 19 years. If you ever watch Walt, if you're his teammate, it's 30 seconds! ... The coach threw him back on the ice, made him stay out for the last minute, which was great. Longest shift, Walt, for sure? But you got through it. You could have stayed longer on some of those shifts (in your career). If you did, imagine the points! A few more goals! But you know you’ve had enough when you start with Thomas Steen (in Winnipeg) and he ends up with his son Alex (Steen)."
Tkachuk was the last to step to the podium and was gracious in his last speech as a player.
"It’s time to count my blessings and make it official that I’m retiring as a member of the St. Louis Blues and a National Hockey League player," he said. "I have lifelong memories and friends that I will forever hold close to my heart. I would not have met my wife and been blessed with three amazing kids (Matthew, Braeden and Taryn). No man can ask for more from this wonderful game.
"I have everything today because of hockey. I have lifelong memories, friends that I will forever hold close to my heart. I would not have met my wife and blessed with three amazing kids. No man can ask for anything from this wonderful game."
Tkachuk, who said it's possible that he could get back into the game one day as a coach or front office person, will enjoy retirement one day at a time.
"It's starting to sink in," he said. "I think it will really hit me next year -- not at training camp -- but after training camp. It's been a great ride. It's a wonderful place to play. I'm just proud that I've stuck around this long.
"I think I can play another year, but I'm not. It's gotten to the point where it's (been) a lot of games, mentally and physically drained. I'm missing a lot at home, and it's getting tougher. My role's changed and I understand that. It's time for somebody else to step in."
There was a video tribute Monday at the Cardinals' home opener, where Tkachuk has season tickets to.
"It was incredible. I was caught off-guard by that. I couldn't believe it," Tkachuk said. "I can't even express how it made me feel. It was amazing. That just tells you about St. Louis fans. Whether it's hockey, baseball, football, they love their sports. We've been around here 9-10 years, it's been everything we've hoped for."
The Melrose, Massachusetts native will not uproot his family. They plan on living in St. Louis.
"We enjoy living here," he said. "We're comfortable here, we love the people here. ... It's a good place to raise a family and my kids would be really unhappy with me if I packed them up and gone somewhere else, which I'll never do."
With his teammates looking on in honor, he turned to them and said, "We may no longer be teammates, but we will always be friends."
* NOTES -- The Blues have scheduled a press conference for noon today and it is being reported that they will announce that head coach Davis Payne will be named the 23rd coach in team history, removing the interim label off his title.
Payne, 39, who guided the Blues to a 23-15-4 record after taking over for Andy Murray, helped the Blues go 12-5-2 at home, including six in a row and nine of 11 at Scottrade Center.
The Blues also learned Tuesday that they will pick 14th in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft this summer in Los Angeles.