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Happy 50th to the original Captain Coyote, Keith Tkachuk

Craig Morgan Avatar
March 28, 2022

There was a lot of work to be done when the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix in the summer of 1996. The Coyotes had to sell NHL hockey to a market that was largely unfamiliar with the game, save for a few thousand diehard Roadrunners fans and some transplants from other markets.

Among the team’s players, no one shouldered more responsibility for that sale than Jeremy Roenick, the perfect pitchman, and Keith Tkachuk, the first captain in Coyotes history.

“There was always something going on,” Tkachuk said, “whether it was promoting the game by taking trips with the business side or the community side of the team. We had a lot more to do than just play hockey.”

When the long work days had ended, however, the players still found ways to have fun.

“I remember when we first moved to Phoenix, (defenseman and future captain) Teppo Numminen had a party for everyone,” said Dallas Drake, Tkachuk’s teammate, roommate and longtime friend. “For whatever reason, me and Walt decided we wanted to go around the back of the house and climb up on the roof and jump in the pool. It wasn’t a very big jump to the pool, but we were trying to be subtle and quiet about the whole thing and we got to the top of the roof no problem.

“The problem is, Walt is a large individual. We started running down these tiles and I think Walt broke every single tile he hit on the way down. It sounded like a herd of cows. I was very fleet of foot but he was just tromping and there were things flying everywhere; parts of the roof were coming off. So much for being subtle.”

Subtlety was not a brand that Tkachuk brought to the ice, either. From the start of his NHL career in 1991-92, he was the prototypical power forward; a player that went to the hard areas, scored a lot, talked a lot and backed it up with both his performance and his willingness to fight.

“It was clear from the start that he was going to be a power forward of the (Rick) Tocchet, (Cam) Neely type,” said former Jets coach and GM John Paddock, who made the move with the team to Arizona. “He had an impact right away and into the playoffs. 

“His legacy to me is one of the top players of that era for 15 or so years. Everybody wanted that guy then and they still do now. You need that guy. I really enjoyed coaching him. He was a personality on and off the ice.”

As the original Captain Coyote turns 50 today, PHNX Sports caught up with him to reflect on that milestone birthday, his memorable career and his role in fathering the next generation of Tkachuk NHL’ers.

“When I look back I think, ‘Wow, did that go by fast!’” Tkachuk said of his career and turning 50. “Everybody tells you that once you get in the NHL, but it was a blast. It really was. I miss it for sure. But it is what it is. You get old.”

Tkachuk’s big personality wasn’t entirely evident when he reached the NHL. When he debuted with the Jets, he hid it; at least initially.

“I think he realized that as an American kid playing in Winnipeg, he had to earn his stripes so he was very respectful and deferential to the leadership group,” said former Jets teammate Ed Olczyk, now an NHL analyst for TNT.

“It didn’t take long for his personality to come out, though. I think in his second game, he dropped the gloves with (Edmonton’s) Scott Mellanby right off the faceoff in the neutral zone. Mel was a big guy and Walt had like a soft cast on left hand, too. 

“That’s one hell of a guy to pick your first fight with but I think Keith knew he was going to get challenged in the league so he answered it. I think that’s why he gained so much respect so quickly inside the room and throughout the league. He had a swagger and confidence and an attitude, but he would back it up.”

Just as he did with Shane Doan, Olczyk took Tkachuk under his wing, inviting him to his house for dinner, taking him out to dinner on the road, getting him back on track with a “Get your head out of your ass” line on the bench, or encouraging him when the coaches were particularly rough on him.

“I’m proud to say I gave him his nickname; that’s my claim to fame.” Olczyk said. “I’m a hockey lifer so I remembered Walt Tkaczuk, who played for the New York Rangers for 1,000 years. I knew he wasn’t related, but I thought, ‘Fuck it. When he comes in, he’s going to be Walt.’ I think the first time I said it to him, he was like, ‘No, no, my name is Keith.’ I go, ‘It’s not anymore.’”

Keith Tkachuk spent the first four-plus seasons of his NHL career with the Winnipeg Jets. (Getty Images)

Occasionally, the pupil bit the hand that fed him. One such incident fed Tkachuk’s lore.

Tkachuk, Olczyk and Jim McKenzie liked to frequent casinos on the road but on a trip to Detroit early in Keith’s career, he stayed back at the hotel. When Olczyk and McKenzie returned, they found out why.

“One of our teammates had broken into our room and pretty much trashed it,” Olczyk said, laughing. “Everybody was waiting for us to get back to our room to see our reaction and you could hear doors slamming once we discovered what they had done. 

“I ran out in the hallway and yelled, “Walt, I know it was you! This is your brand!’ About a half hour later, Walt came down, he had this frown on his face and he stammers, ‘I, I only did a little bit of it.'”

Tkachuk wouldn’t give up his co-conspirators so Olczyk grabbed a media guide, took it to the front desk and asked the clerk to identify the player who had obtained the key to his room. It was Randy Gilhen.

“We had a lineup and Mac and I were basically judge, jury and executioner,” Olczyk said. “Walt did a lot of damage. I won’t tell you what he did because it’s probably a little disgusting. I think he had to pay for like $1,800 in clean-up and damages.”

Tkachuk estimated that 10-11 players took part in the festivities.

“The worst part of it was Eddie O and Jimmy Mac came to my room before they went to their own room to tell me how much they won at the casino,” Tkachuk said sheepishly. “I’m looking at them like ‘Oh no, they have no idea.’”

Tkachuk admits that the camaraderie of the dressing room is the thing that he misses most in his retirement, which has reached 12 years.

‘It’s weird. When you’re in the locker room and then you decide there is no more locker room, you kind of talk like you were in the locker room at home and that doesn’t fly very well,” he said, laughing. “There’s something about being in there every day. These are the guys you’re playing games with, battling with, battling against in practice so you become a family and become pretty close.

“You miss the times when you’re razzing each other, you miss the times when you’re down and you find a way to win. There’s nothing better than being in there with all your buddies and your work-like mentality and going to battle with them. Those are the guys you’ll always remember.”

Tkachuk has no trouble keeping busy, however. He is the director of player recruitment for the St. Louis Blues, affording him the opportunity to scout college free agents, USHL players, draft-eligible players and do a little bit of pro scouting. He also watches most games when his sons, Matthew (Calgary) and Brady (Ottawa) are playing, and he and his wife, Chantal, also take trips to watch their daughter, Taryn, play field hockey for the University of Virginia.

All three kids’ successes fill him with pride.

“I think the best thing I did when my playing career was over was to step away and go spend time with my kids because that’s the most important thing in life is your family,” he said. “I really enjoyed that.”

Tkachuk racked up an impressive list of accomplishments in his career. He retired with 1,201 games played, 538 goals (33rd in NHL history), 212 power-play goals (14th) and 1,065 points (69th). He is a five-time NHL All-Star, a four-time Olympian, he won a World Cup with the U.S. in 1996 and he was inducted into the USA Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.

He is the only Coyote to crack the 80-point barrier and the only Coyote to crack the 40- and 50-goal barriers. While Tkachuk enjoys chatting about the past, he enjoys taking part in his kids’ successes far more. When PHNX caught up with him early on Monday morning, he had just returned from a trip to Calgary to watch Matthew play and he was heading to Nashville to celebrate his 50th birthday by watching Brady’s Senators play the Predators.

“I love watching my kids. I love watching the game of hockey so that takes precedence over anything else,” he said. “It’s great that (my 50th is) in Nashville, though.”

Tkachuk said that if he is able to stay awake late enough tonight, he may celebrate his birthday, but it’s not a priority.

“I couldn’t care less,” he said. “I’m a pretty simple-life guy. Give me a Bud Lite and a steak and I’m good.”

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