Impact – ”Having a strong effect on someone or something.”
The Winnipeg Jets have a history like no other. They were dominant in the WHA, struggled to make the jump to the NHL and as soon as they began to pick up steam – POOF! they were gone. As fans, we are only privy to certain aspects of team chemistry. We may occasionally hear rumours about players’ behaviours in locker rooms, hotels, team busses and on the bench, but, for the most part, fans are silent observers. 2020 has forced us all into a state of reflection, remembering how things were and how they got to where they are now. That’s why it felt important to look at which players impacted the Jets franchise, for the good, the bad and the ugly.
The Ugly – Keith Tkachuk
It is safe to assume that Keith Tkachuk would never refer to his game as pretty or flashy. He was gritty, strong on the puck and, to be blunt, ugly. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as his sons Brady and Matthew exemplify the same attributes as their father. It is a position of pride for the Tkachuks to play with this passion and grit, which is why the American’s impact on the Jets franchise was a special kind of ugly. Tkachuk’s arrival to Winnipeg was far from ideal. The Boston University alumni was part of the trade package that saw Jets legend Dale ‘Ducky’ Hawerchuk leave town. Those were some tough shoes to fill and, while Phil Housley came in the deal to take some heat off the young rookie, Tkachuk thrived under pressure. In his first full season, he netted 28 goals, 23 assists and 201 penalty minutes. The bulky left-winger’s impact was predestined the moment he embraced the Jets culture.
It must be a special feeling, playing against legends you grew up watching, but as a professional you have to put those feelings aside when you step on the ice. On April 1, 1995, Tkachuk made it known how he would approach this conundrum when he leveled Wayne Gretzky at the Forum in Los Angeles. While ‘The Great One’ came up limping and Tkachuk had to deal with a sucker punch from Marty Mcsorley in retaliation, you could tell Tkachuk loved it and was going to treat legends, enforcers and 4th liners as one-in-the-same. This attitude led him toward his most productive years in Winnipeg, including an 81-point season in 1993-94 and his career-high 50 goals and 98 points in the Jets final 1995-96 season. Tkachuk was anointed Captain at the age of 21 and would proudly wear The C until the final season, when Tkachuk’s impact got ugly off-the-ice.
The amount of money being made in today’s NHL dwarfs the amount players were making in the ’90s. This meant players in the ’90s needed to capitalize on big deals when they were available and Tkachuk was no different. Prior to the start of the 1995-96 season, the Chicago Blackhawks offered Tkachuk a front-loaded offer sheet of $17 million, which included $6 million in the first year, and he signed it. This meant Winnipeg had the option to match the offer. Despite their financial troubles and the looming move to Phoenix, they did – but with a caveat: Tkachuk was stripped of his Captaincy. While this could have been a blow to most players’ egos, the Massachusetts monster did not let it affect him. He ended his time in Winnipeg with a career-high in points, ensuring that his impact would be ugly because of his skill as a player – not the Captain. He led the team in the final skate around the Winnipeg Arena, saluting the fans for the support and, as Assistant Equipment Manager Craig ‘Zinger’ Heisinger said, “Tkachuk didn’t worry about getting the puck after the empty netter, his last goal in a Jets uniform, he skated into the tunnel and hugged every single member of the staff.” By all accounts, there was nothing ugly about Tkachuk off-the-ice. He left the ugliness on-the-ice, which is why his impact on Winnipeg will always rival that of other Jets’ legends.