'Big Walt's' Wild Ride

Former NHL And Olympic Star Keith Tkachuk Is Giving Back To The Game In A Big Way

After 19 seasons in the NHL, Hall of Famer Keith Tkachuk is passing on his considerable hockey knowledge to the next generation of players in St. Louis, including his 14-year-old son, Matthew.After 19 seasons in the NHL, Hall of Famer Keith Tkachuk is passing on his considerable hockey knowledge to the next generation of players in St. Louis, including his 14-year-old son, Matthew.

It’s hard to imagine that a man who is one of only four American-born NHL players to score 500 goals, has been inducted into one Hall of Fame and is on a short waiting list for another may have missed his true calling in hockey.

But when you consider what Keith Tkachuk has done in such a short amount of time as a youth hockey coach, you start to wonder if he should’ve made the move behind the bench just a little bit sooner.

In two seasons since he hung up his competitive skates, Tkachuk has taken two different St. Louis-based youth teams to the USA Hockey National Championships, making it to the semifinals in 2011 and coming within a goal of capturing youth hockey’s Holy Grail this season.

Yet through it all, the man known throughout theKeith Tkachuk was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2011. He is one of only four American-born players to score more than 500 goals in the NHL.Keith Tkachuk was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2011. He is one of only four American-born players to score more than 500 goals in the NHL. hockey world as “Big Walt” keeps it all in perspective as he looks to pass along a lifetime’s worth of hockey knowledge to the next generation.

“I feel like I owe it to the game of hockey to try to help out kids,” said Tkachuk, who played 19 NHL seasons. “Fortunately, my kids love to play hockey and actually like having me on the bench.”

The fact that St. Louis youth hockey is making big noise on the national stage should come as no surprise. With the strong support of the St. Louis Blues, a dedicated youth hockey infrastructure and a passionate group of Blues alumni who still call the Gateway City home, it adds up to a winning combination.

 “It’s pretty cool to see that hockey in Missouri is doing really well. I never would have thought, 20 years ago, that a team from Missouri would be that good,” said Tkachuk, who spent nine seasons in St. Louis after beginning his career with the Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise.

“I remember watching Al MacInnis when I played with him. He had kids, and I remember how excited he was to be coaching them. I learned a lot from him, and he learned a lot from Basil McRae and the other alumni who put in a lot of time to help develop the program.

“That’s the key, having guys who know the game and are willing to put the time in. I’m just fortunate that my boys like playing and that I can help out coaching.”

That’s evident by the performance Tkachuk-led teams have enjoyed at Nationals. One year after leading his younger son Braeden’s team to the semifinals at the Tier I 12 & Under tournament in Hackensack, N.J., Tkachuk was back at it this year.

Facing a tough draw at this year’s Tier I 14 & Under tournament in Amherst, N.Y., the Blues lost two of its three preliminary-round games and squeaked into the quarterfinals against a tough Long Island Gulls team.

In what could easily be described as the game of the tournament, the Blues and Gulls waged a back-and-forth battle that featured a last-second Gulls goal by Nolan Aibel, and a miraculous overtime save by Blues goaltender Luke Opilka.

“It’ll definitely put some gray hairs on your head, and I have enough of those already,”  Tkachuk said afterward.
Braeden Tkachuk was a member of the St. Louis Jr. Blues team that made it to the semifinals of the Tier I 12 & Under tournament last year in Hackensack, N.J.Braeden Tkachuk was a member of the St. Louis Jr. Blues team that made it to the semifinals of the Tier I 12 & Under tournament last year in Hackensack, N.J.

“It’s tough getting scored on with nine seconds left, but our goalie had to make a great save in triple overtime that gave us some momentum.

"It was great. I looked up in the stands and seeing the crowd we had watching that game.”

It’s moments like that, when seemingly sure victory is snatched from the grasp that the experience that comes with playing in more than 1,200 NHL games, and on four U.S. Olympic Teams, can help put things into perspective. Along the way Tkachuk played for some great coaches, such as Joel Quenneville, Ron Wilson and Herb Brooks, who helped him develop his own coaching style.

“I played for some great coaches, and you pick up things along the way that you remember that were positive influences,” Tkachuk said.

“The thing I like about [coaching] is looking at it from where they started to where they finished. It isn’t about wins and losses but how they develop. We take pride in that.”

As if to give credence to the adage, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Matthew Tkachuk snapped the tie with less than two minutes remaining in the third overtime to lift the Blues into the semifinals.

“It was great. He’s such a great kid. He works hard and he loves the game of hockey,” Dad said after his son’s five-point performance.

“The thing I like about [coaching] is looking at it from where they started to where they finished. It isn’t about wins and losses but how they develop. We take pride in that.”­
—Coach Keith Tkachuk

As far as he is concerned, that’s enough to keep him coming back to the rink, night after night, throughout the course of a long youth hockey season.

“I feel like I’m busier now than when I played, but I enjoy it," he said. "Hopefully I can do it for many more years. As long as my kids want me to keep coaching I’m going to keep on doing it.”

There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of hockey left in Tkachuk’s tank. His place may have changed from in front of opposing nets to behind the bench, but the man who was inspired by the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team and went on to inspire the next crop of NHL stars, is now looking to do the same for future generations.

And while he would someday like to once again wear the USA crest, perhaps as a coach with a U.S. National Team, for now he is at home in St. Louis, spending most nights of the week on the ice with his two sons’ teams.

“I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t at practice every night, or every other night,” he said. “I love being around the kids, and I love helping out. But it has been a long year with two different teams, so I could definitely use a break.”

 

Photos By Steve DeMeo (2) ; Getty Images (2); Carmo Photography
Issue: 
2012-06

Poll

What has been your favorite off-ice activity this summer?: