Longtime equipment manager Stan Wilson was standing across the hallway from the Coyotes old locker room at the Alltel Ice Den when the media surrounded captain Keith Tkachuk just inside the doorway.
Reporters were there to gauge Tkachuks reaction to a story that painted him as a prima donna. Tkachuk knew why they were there. So did Wilson.
Before the first question was lobbed, Tkachuk raised his hand as if to say, "Hang on a minute. He leaned around the corner, spotted Wilson and screamed, "Hey, Stan, get me a (expletive) Diet Coke!"
Instead of defending himself, he threw gas on the fire, said Wilson, who could barely contain his laughter. That was the last thing hed ever do to me in real life. He was just goofing around, playing with the media, as if to say, 'If they wrote it, it must be true.
The moment was vintage Tkachuk. Big, brash, confident, surly and supremely gifted, the Coyotes all-time greatest power forward had a reputation he loved to reinforce. Some of it was well-earned, because Tkachuk loved to party and he loved attention, but those who knew him best remember the big kid with the big heart more than anything else.
Ive never seen a player treat the training staff and take care of people the way Keith took care of people, former Coyote Jeremy Roenick said. He always took the trainers out for dinner on the road and he always made sure the boys tipped the trainers and medical staff when a lot of guys didnt want to.
He understood this game we played was great, but he also understood there were a lot of people who made it great for us, so we had to take care of them.
Tkachuk will be inducted into the Coyotes Ring of Honor on Friday in a pregame ceremony before Phoenix meets the St. Louis Blues, the only other franchise with which Tkachuk spent significant time. The honor comes less than two weeks after he was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Chicago.
It was just awesome getting a chance to play for that team, that organization, said Tkachuk, who moved with the team to Phoenix from Winnipeg in 1996. It was a huge challenge, but we tried to build something for a city that didnt have a base of hockey before we got there.
Tkachuks immense talents were apparent from the moment he showed up in Winnipeg as a rookie in 1991. So was his fiery personality.
If I remember right, I think he dropped the gloves in his first game and fought Scott Mellanby, said former Jet Ed Olczyk, who nicknamed Tkachuk Walt after 1970s New York Rangers forward Walter Tkaczuk. He knew he could play. He knew he belonged, and that demeanor is what made him successful.
In his early years, Tkachuk mixed it up a little more with other players, big or small.
I remember one game when he wanted to break Cliff Ronning into about five pieces, Olczyk said.
That same reckless demeanor got him in some hot water off the ice. Tkachuk developed a reputation as a party boy, with some in the Winnipeg press questioning his dedication and fitness levels.
Walts personality wasnt very far from how he carried himself off ice, said Olczyk, whom Tkachuk credits with taking him under his wing like a big brother. He loved being around the guys and he loved everything that came with being an NHL player. He loved having fun. Thats half the battle in life.
Roenick said that style never really changed when Tkachuk was in Phoenix. People just learned to live with it because he kept producing.
There was a time when we were playing in Florida when me, (Craig) Janney, (Bob) Corkum and him went out in South Beach the night before a game and stayed out until the wee hours of the night probably about 4 oclock in the morning, Roenick said. It was not a very good day the next day. I just needed to sleep, and our coach (Jim Schoenfeld) was pissed.
Keith goes out that night and scores a hat trick and we beat the Panthers. Thats how he was, and thats what made it OK. You live hard and you play hard. That was the code.
Tkachuk even used his social life as a motivational tool. In 1998, the Coyotes were playing their last game before the All-Star break. Tkachuk, Roenick and Rick Tocchet had booked a flight to Las Vegas right after the game, but the game went into overtime.
He was so pissed on the bench, Roenick said.
Tkachuk scored just over a minute into overtime to beat Panthers.
We didnt even celebrate, Roenick said. We skated right off the ice, did a quick soap-up and we were out the door.
Despite his off-ice theatrics, Roenick and Wilson said Tkachuks work ethic was above reproach. He would arrive at the teams practice facility at 6 a.m. -- before everyone else. Hed station a bike so he could see inside the players lounge and everyone could see their captain riding.
If they got there late, hed be like 'What? You dont like to be here? You dont like to hang out in the locker room? Roenick said. After practice, hed do the same thing.
In his first season with the Coyotes, Tkachuk became the first American-born player to lead the NHL in goals (52) and just the fourth player in NHL history to record 50 goals and 200 penalty minutes in a single season. He played 10 seasons with the WinnipegPhoenix organization, appearing in 640 games with 323 goals, 623 points and 1,508 penalty minutes.
He led the team in scoring in four seasons (1993-94, '95-96, '96-97 and '97-98), recording two 40-goal seasons ('93-94 and '97-98) and two 50-goal campaigns ('95-96 and '96-97). He was an NHL All-Star in 1997, '98 and '99 and a second-team All-Star in '95 and '98.
He ranks second in franchise history in goals, fifth in assists, fourth in points, second in power-play goals (114) and second in game-winning goals (40). He also holds the franchise record for career penalty minutes.
His overall strength was really his strength, Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. He was so difficult to get off the puck, and when he went to the net, he went there with such determination.
To finish it all off, he had the hands to hold onto to it. He had that strength of being able to go through people and around people. He was just an overall power forward that everyone is kind of compared to now.
Tkachuk still keeps a condo in the Valley, one he hadnt visited in a couple years before he arrived in town on Wednesday to catch up with old friends. Life and family have kept him busy, especially coaching both of his boys teams (Matthew is 14, Braeden is 12).
Im probably busier now than when I played, he said. I might have to get a job so Im not so busy.
Tkachuk brought the entire family to Phoenix for the occasion, including wife Chantal and daughter Taryn. The kids plan to ride horses at Doans ranch, where Wilson also stables his horses. Tkachuk wont be taking part in that activity.
Hes scared to death of em, Wilson said. Its unbelievable. A big man like that, scared of horses. Its the only thing Ive ever seen him scared of.
When the time came for the Coyotes to trade Tkachuk to the Blues in 2001 to bolster their future, he embraced the new challenge and reuniting with old pal Dallas Drake, even if it meant leaving the only organization hed ever known.
I knew it was coming, and I understood it, he said. I was very emotional because I had a lot of good friends there and you never want to leave your friends, but at the end of the day, they had to do what was best for the organization.
I didnt hold any ill will toward the Coyotes, and I still dont. I never thought things would play out the way they did with my career, that Id have so much success. Im very grateful to the Coyotes for giving me the opportunity.