March 31, 2006

Walt Tkaczuk

If they ever designate a league wide trophy for the most underrated player in the National Hockey League, they should name it the Walt Tkaczuk Award.

The man with an alphabet-soup surname was never an explosive scorer but he did collect 227 goals in his 13 year career, all spent with the New York Rangers from 1968 through 1981. He was much better at moving the puck, as his 451 career assists attest. All in all, he was a consistent 20 goal, 60 point threat.

But Tkaczuk's biggest contribution to the Rangers was his using of his hockey intelligence to develop into a sparkling defensive forward, especially as a penalty killer. He was among the league's elite shadows and faceoff men too. He was an extremely important player on the Rangers, even though he was overshadowed by the glitzier players such as Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert.

Walter was also as tough as nails. Opponents described Tkaczuk as virtually unstoppable once he built up a head of steam and rushed down the ice. Walter's toughness was probably inherited from his father Mike. Mike worked as a driller at the Jamieson Copper Mine in South Porcupine, Ontario, which is where Walter grew up (he was actually born in Emstedetten, Germany!)

For a time Walter worked in the mine with his dad, earning $1.80 an hour. "I was a pipe-fitter. That was the first summer. The year after that I worked deep in the mine, about 3300 feet down. My job was to go into the holes alongside the little railroad and follow the vein of gold. I walked on rock all the time," remembers Walter.

Even more concerning than the rock must have been his cargo - an air drill and sticks of dynamite!

"We'd plan the dynamite and light the fuse and then get away from there. If you used ten sticks of dynamite you had to listen for 10 blasts. I remember one time we planted five sticks but there were only four blasts. But two had gone off together."

Doing that job must have made the rough going in hockey seem like child's play. And there was nothing Walter loved to do more than play hockey. He escaped the mines unscathed and joined the Kitchener Rangers junior team. He became a 2 time OHA all star (1967 and 1968) and was named as the league's most valuable player in 1968 - ahead of future professionals Tom Webster and Danny Lawson.

"Tkaczuk stood out," remembers one scout. "He went where the puck was, fought for it and when he had it, he was a hard man to knock off it."

Even though 6'0 and 185 pounds isn't an overwhelming size, Tkaczuk's robust play was the key to his game. And he never took the easy route.

"I remember in his first season," recalled his first general manager Emile "Cat" Francis, "when he was coming in on Bobby Baun, one of the toughest checkers in the league and I thought 'Oh no, Walter!' But he kept going right at him and knocked Baun back ten feet, and kept going toward the net. That's the kind of strength he has. When he goes into a corner for the puck with two or three guys, he not only comes out with it most of the time, but he's not even off balance."

Yet despite this physical presence, Walter was extremely disciplined. He was only penalized for 556 minutes in penalties in 945 career games.

Like many rookies, Walter started off slowly in his NHL career, scoring modest totals of 12 goals, 24 assists and 36 points but he really took off in his second year, 1969-70. His 27 goals, 50 assists and 77 points would all prove to be career highs.

After his big season Tkaczuk decided to hold out until he got the raise he felt he deserved. Even though that strained the relationship between player and boss, Francis didn't hold it against Tkaczuk. Francis even described Tkaczuk as "a great young hockey player" shortly after the contract dispute was settled.

Tkaczuk quickly proved his big season was no fluke, as he very nearly equaled his numbers from the year before despite missing 2 games to the holdout (plus one game to a minor injury). Tkaczuk's 26-49-75 season led the Rangers to one of their strongest seasons in recent memory. However Tkaczuk had a learning experience in the 1971 playoffs - he played admirably but only scored once in 13 games.

Tkaczuk took that lesson to good use in the 1971-72 season. His 24-42-66 season led the Rangers to another strong finish. The Rangers, thanks largely to Tkaczuk, were able to get by Montreal and Chicago in the playoffs before meeting the powerful Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals.

The Bruins were of course led by Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. Tkaczuk drew the responsibility of trying to stop the mammoth Esposito - the Bruins goal scoring machine. While the Bruins captured the Stanley Cup, Tkaczuk certainly captured the respect of Esposito and entire league in that series.

"I've never run into anyone tougher. Ever," said Espo of Tkaczuk. "Bobby Clarke of Philadelphia gives me fits because he's so fast and persistent. Jim Harrison in Toronto was as strong as a horse but Tkaczuk had a combination of those qualities."

Throughout the 1970s Tkaczuk centered the "Bulldog Line" with Bill Fairbairn and Dave Balon, who was later replaced by Steve Vickers. With their trademark tenacity and determination, the trio were favorites of the Madison Square Gardens faithful.

A serious eye injury ended Tkaczuk's career half way through the 1980-81 season.

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