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Panthers forward Tkachuk returns to province where he was loved, and loathed

EDMONTON — On the eve of his return to Calgary, Matthew Tkachuk stuck it to his old rivals.
Florida Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk, left, controls the puck in front of Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Andrew Peeke during the first period an NHL hockey game in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Paul Vernon

EDMONTON — On the eve of his return to Calgary, Matthew Tkachuk stuck it to his old rivals.

Just 3:49 into the Florida Panthers matchup against the Edmonton Oilers, Tkachuk swatted a rebound into the goal and immediately cupped his gloved hand to his ear, welcoming the boos from the Oilers faithful.

For an evening, it was easy to imagine he was still a member of the Calgary Flames.

Asked before the game if the boos would rain down when Oilers fans see him in a Panthers jersey, he replied: "I’ve got no idea."

"It’s not my decision," Tkachuk said. "It’s what everybody else here thinks, you might have to ask them."

That answer came quickly.

Despite Tkachuk’s two-point effort (one goal, one assist), the Oilers prevailed 4-3 in overtime. And now the focus shifts to Tkachuk’s return to the Saddledome.

“Obviously I’ve thought about it,” Tkachuk said after his Florida Panthers skated in Edmonton late Monday morning ahead of a game against the Oilers. “But, until we get to tomorrow I probably won't be able to give you a good answer on it.”

The NHL schedule-maker did its best to minimize the drama of a Tkachuk return with the Monday game in Edmonton, where he was Public Enemy No. 1 for six seasons, before his arrival in Calgary on Tuesday, a place where Tkachuk was a hero. 

There are no off-days to help build the hype, and very few opportunities for media to get the cameras and recorders in front of the American power forward.

“It’s just kind of another road trip, right now,” Tkachuk said when asked about what he expects in Calgary. “This one (against Edmonton) doesn’t particularly feel that special, but I am sure tomorrow will.

“We’ve got the game tonight, and our team is super-focused on this one, and not allowing the emotion to look past this one. But tomorrow will be special for me, for sure.”

Tkachuk, who had a 104-point season for the Flames in 2021-22 and amassed a total of 382 points for Calgary over six campaigns, was dealt in the off-season to Florida for forward Jonathan Huberdeau and defenceman MacKenzie Weegar. 

It was the kind of blockbuster trade you rarely see in the NHL anymore, with so many teams being up against the cap. But it was part of Flames’ general manager Brad Treliving’s plan to rebuild his team on the fly, after star forward Johnny Gaudreau made the decision to sign as a free agent with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Fast forward to this season, and Tkachuk has 27 points in 18 games for the Panthers, while Huberdeau has just 10 in 18 games for the Flames.

While Tkachuk was not going to say anything that could be used as bulletin-board material, his coach, Paul Maurice, had no issue raving about what Tkachuk brings to the Panthers.  

“I don’t know if surprised is the right word,” said Maurice, who coached the Jets before taking the reins this season with the Panthers. “But in Winnipeg, we would have seen a fair amount of him, and I didn’t fully understand his hand skills. 

"He has an incredible ability to tip pucks from all across his body, at different levels, and so many of the tight-area plays, what’s unusual for him is that he can do it goal line to the back of the net. 

“To see it in practice, to see the number of pucks he knocks down and no one understands how he did that.”

Maurice said Tkachuk is model team player, painting a different picture than the agitator who has earned three suspensions and was the central figure in a famous brawl between the Flames and Oilers in February 2021.

“The way he treats people off the ice is incredible,” said Maurice. “The trainers, the bus drivers, all of the support staff, it’s really impressive to watch. He’s a very, very respectful young man who has had a whole bunch of success."

Maurice said the team is looking forward to how fans in Alberta — those who loathed and loved Tkachuk — will react.

“I think our guys might enjoy that a little bit,” he said. “They’ll have a bit of fun with it, and it won’t be the first time Matthew’s been booed in Alberta, so he’ll be fine with it.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2022.

Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press

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