For a few surreal years before Brady Tkachuk arrived in Ottawa, the most entertaining spectacle in town was watching the 2.1-billion-dollar LRT collapse into various sinkholes and the politicians desperately trying to tell everyone that it was all going to be okay … someday.
In fact, that’s the same message the Ottawa Senators were trying to relay to fans as their own team fell into a sinkhole so deep that you couldn’t even see the bottom.
That was the exact moment the mouthguard-chewing, eye-rolling, smirking 18-year-old super-brat Tkachuk arrived in town.
Entertainment quickly followed.
Consider the evidence:
Early in the 2018-19 season, Tkachuk found himself in his first NHL fight (possibly his first ever hockey fight if you don’t count all the driveway battles with his older brother and current Calgary Flame Matthew) when Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader took a run at Tkachuk’s then-landlord Mark Stone along the end boards. Brady stopped worrying about the puck and went after Abdelkader immediately. The crowd erupted as Brady took two quick shots to the head but failed to go down. Instead, he responded with at least three wild bombs and somehow ended up on Abdelkader’s back and was riding him like a carnival horse until the linesmen pulled him off the bewildered Red Wing.
Afterwards in the locker room, Tkachuk delivered the first classic quote of his career when he said “I just thought it was a high hit…and especially on my landlord. That’s me paying rent”.
It was rumoured each local reporter had an extra beer at D’Arcy McGee’s that night to celebrate their next ten years of quotes being lined up by one player.
Even before his horsey ride, Tkachuk went viral when a TSN interview of him and two other rookies by reporter Brent Wallace revealed that teammate Max Lajoie called his girlfriend before his own parents when he found out he made the team at the end of the 2018 training camp. Tkachuk famously winced and shook his head at the indiscretion, creating a smorgasbord of GIFS that still clog Twitter timelines to this day.
As the team sank to the bottom of the standings last season after a decent start, Tkachuk’s endearing hooliganism became a lifesaver for fans looking for something… anything to get excited about.
In a game against the Flyers, Tkachuk took a healthy run at Philadelphia’s prized prospect Nolan Patrick. With nobody on the Flyers coming over to challenge him, Brady stared down Patrick and then went over and stole his stick right out of his hands until a conscientious linesman asked for it back. Brady handed it over politely and went about his night.
In the waning moments of a typical 4-0 loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, Tkachuk decided to go after the King of Pests, Tom Wilson behind the Senators net. He slammed Wilson to the ice for no apparent reason other than to extract a little skin for the beatdown the Senators had deserved. A seemingly more mature, suspension-wary Wilson simply started laughing as he picked himself off the ice and uncharacteristically retreated back to the bench without even a stink-glove to the face in response.
You can bet Wilson saw a little of his younger self in Tkachuk and understood the motivation. He understood it so well that he knew Tkachuk was simply trying to get a scrum going so he could get in a few free pokes. On this night it was all for laughs. Even stately Thomas Chabot, the franchise defenseman with the stoic on-ice persona, skated over to Tkachuk with a huge smile on his face.
When you’re the life of the party, people tend to want to hang around, even the shy ones.
Once the inevitable happened at the trade deadline and the payroll was purged of the team’s only remaining stars, the room by default belonged to Tkachuk, Chabot and a hodge-podge of future prospects like Drake Batherson and Logan Brown, or reclamation projects like Anthony Duclair and Anders Nilsson.
Tkachuk, on his way to an impressive 22 goal rookie season, watched as teammate Matt Duchene was traded to Columbus on Feb. 22. Magically, Columbus was already in town to play the Sens that night, so all Duchene had to do was roll his equipment bag down the hall to the visitors dressing room.
You’d think it would feel strange for the players to be facing their former star center when they had just been practising and eating meals together only 24 hours prior. Tkachuk was unbothered by this formality.
On one shift that night, Duchene was trying to go off the ice to the Jackets bench when Brady “accidentally” ran into him along the boards. With the bench door wide open, ready for the entrance of the newly acquired superstar, Brady just kept shoving Duchene away from it. It went on long enough for it to feel uncomfortable, but when Duchene finally got free of the chaos, he was laughing his ass off.
Just like the pests, star players know the agitator role well because they’re most often the target of it. Duchene should have known he wasn’t going to just get a friendly jab from Tkachuk, and the smile on his face told us he was glad he got the full treatment.
If anything, Tkachuk will be a classic case of “hated by opponents, loved by teammates (and for a while, ex-teammates)”.
Tkachuk’s first year was an unqualified success, even if the team was in a mind-melting descent around him. Earning 45 points and a noticeable reputation around the NHL is huge accomplishment for any rookie. The effect on the fanbase was probably even stronger, as he became a local favourite almost instantly. The beer and popcorn crowd saw him as one of their own. Even the advanced stats bloggers liked him, and they don’t like anybody.
There was a little of that je ne sais quoi missing once Chris Neil retired and the big names like Erik Karlsson and later, Mark Stone were shipped off. The entertainment value, both the primal and more finesse-related, was suddenly in short supply. Tkachuk brought some of both back to Ottawa.
Cue the crushingly high expectations. Many a second-year player has been cut down a few levels by what’s become known in NHL lore as the “Sophomore Jinx”. As Sinatra once sang, “You’re riding high in April, shot down in May”.
What happens if Brady Tkachuk has a tough year? Rational hockey people will say it comes with the territory of developing young hockey players. Irrational fans will say they should have picked Filip Zadina (but let’s not get into that swamp again).
For his part, Tkachuk says he packed on upwards of 20 pounds over the summer to better handle the thousands of battles he’ll instigate throughout the 2019-20 season. 20 pounds is a lot of weight over an off-season. If I put on 20 pounds I’d be put on a cruel no-beer diet by my loved ones, but Tkachuk is using that extra weight to take the next step in his career.
The expectations are admittedly still low for the current version of the Senators, but they are going to be sky high for players like Tkachuk and newly signed defenseman Chabot. Any step back this season will be a nagging worry for Sens fans as they try to build up their belief again after a harrowing few years of unbelievable chaos.
If you’re just looking for entertainment, Tkachuk won’t disappoint. But we all know there’s an even higher level of offense and leadership that’s expected of the young winger as his facial hair starts to come in. He’ll likely wear the Captain’s C in a few years or be Chabot’s assistant. He’ll need to learn the right time to instigate an alley brawl and the right time to simply skate back to the bench with a smile on his face.
Until then we can still revel in the sight of Brady having a flossing competition with a young fan in the stands or, in what may be the defining image of last season, Brady getting a few loose screws in his helmet tightened on the bench by a trainer with a Phillips screwdriver.
No need to tighten those screws too much. There’s still some wild entertainment needed on a mid-winter night in the world’s coldest capital city.
By Jeremy Milks