Tkachuk [1296x729]
Tkachuk [1296x729] (Credit: Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

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EDMONTON -- Before Matthew Tkachuk was a star player for the Florida Panthers, he was the most hated man in Edmonton.

Tkachuk spent the first six seasons of this NHL career with the Calgary Flames, combating in the Battle of Alberta, the decades-spanning rivalry in which the Flames and the Edmonton Oilers would bludgeon each other to the delight of neighboring fan bases. It's a feud that stands next to any geographic rivalry in sports based on its championship prestige, Hall of Fame talent and unwavering vitriol.

It most recently erupted again in 2020. It was Tkachuk who lit the fuse, with big hits and his trademark provocation.

"Since being in Edmonton, that was probably the most fun that the Battle of Alberta ever was," said defenseman Darnell Nurse, who has played 10 seasons with the Oilers. "It was just the animosity, the heat that was going on between those teams. And he brought a lot of that." 

Tkachuk remembers those rivalry games well.

"I guess I know them more than probably most guys by playing in Calgary," Tkachuk said. "But we just had the one playoff series against them that they won, and played a bunch in the regular season. There's a lot of different guys over there now."

Calgary traded Tkachuk to the Panthers two years ago. He has returned to Edmonton twice since.

"I know last year I was booed every time I touched the puck. This year there was nothing, so I have no idea this time," he said.

His third reunion with Oilers fans will be Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN+), with the Panthers up 2-0 in the series. It's a moment that finds Tkachuk closing in on a championship, the Oilers desperate to stay alive and the scars from the Battle of Alberta aching for both of them.

"Whenever you get into those heated rivalries, someone's going to be the face of it, inevitably," Nurse said. "And he became that face."

TKACHUK WAS 22 years old in 2020, having quickly earned a reputation as one of the NHL's greatest agitators. He threw big hits. His mouth was a stream of unfiltered trash talk. He had 262 penalty minutes in his first 273 games. But what really ticked off opponents was another stat: His 212 career points in that span.

He was a player opponents simply hated, and hated that he was that good.

Tkachuk made some enemies early in his career. Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty called him "a dirty kid" and said, "I respect everyone else. I'll never talk to him off the ice."

But that was like exchanging friendship bracelets when compared to his heat with Oilers forward Zack Kassian.

Kassian was a physical enforcer and would line up next to Edmonton star Connor McDavid to watch his back. He relished the Battle of Alberta and finished his career with 126 penalty minutes against the Flames -- 70 more minutes than he had against any other team.

The Flames hosted the Oilers on Jan. 11, 2020. Tkachuk targeted Kassian with two huge hits, the second one knocking off the Oilers forward's helmet. Kassian responded by ripping off Tkachuk's helmet, grabbing him by the neck of his jersey and pummeling him.

Kassian threw Tkachuk down to the ice twice, but the Flames forward wouldn't engage in a fight. The linesmen finally stepped in.

Kassian was given a double minor penalty for roughing and a misconduct. Calgary scored on the ensuing power play to win the game 4-3.

The Battle of Alberta was reborn.

"If he doesn't want to get hit, then stay off the tracks. I caught him three times there. You'd think he learned after the first one," Tkachuk said after the game. "If he wants to react like that, we'll take the power play and we'll take the game winner and we'll take first place."

As for not dropping the gloves with Kassian?

"I'm not fighting him. Tough little trade-off there [for Edmonton]," Tkachuk added.

James Neal of the Oilers said: "You can ask any guy in hockey. No one wants to see that hit. He targets his head and takes him out. The whole thing is ridiculous, and the way he talks about it is just stupid."

Tkachuk received criticism from outside the rivalry for his actions.

Former NHL goalie Corey Hirsch said they were "two reckless hits to the head" that forced Kassian "to take matters into his own hands." Former NHL forward Ryan Kesler said, "You can't just turtle like he did after you throw two clean but dirty hits. ... I think everybody that knows the game of hockey thinks what Kassian did was right."

Oilers fans got in on the act, too, posting turtle memes online about Tkachuk. A local Edmonton radio show created a parody song called "He's a Turtle" with lyrics such as, "His gloves are glued on his hands / Now it's pretty clear he's hated by fans."

Kassian had a hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety. George Parros, NHL vice president of player safety, told him that both of Tkachuk's hits were legal, before the department handed the Oilers forward a two-game suspension.

"I'd do it again. All over again. He messed with the wrong guy," Kassian said. "Clean or dirty, if someone takes two runs at you on the blindside ... if you've going to play big boy hockey, you have to answer the bell once in a while."

Kassian said that Tkachuk's refusal to answer for his actions was noticed around the league.

"He's going to play the way he wants to play. If he just answers the bell right there, I don't think anything ever happens," he said. "And I think he might gain a percent of respect in the league."

The next meeting between the Flames and Oilers was Jan. 29.

Or as one billboard put it, the next stop on the "Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour."

Flames fan Mohammad Elsaghir started a GoFundMe to raise money for a billboard celebrating Tkachuk that would been seen in Edmonton. As money poured in, Elsaghir decided to pivot and use it as a fundraiser for ALS research, raising $25,000 in the process. A Calgary radio station stepped up and made the "Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour" a reality, and it ran about a week before the next meeting.

Late in the first period of the Jan. 29 matchup, Edmonton fans roared as Kassian and Tkachuk finally had their fight, with the Oilers brawler making quick work of the Flames forward.

But the bell that Tkachuk rung in the Battle of Alberta could not be unrung. The next meeting was Feb. 1 and featured a line brawl between the teams, with Tkachuk fighting Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear. It was best remembered for a goalie fight between Calgary's Mike Smith and Edmonton's Cam Talbot, to underscore the chaos.

"The Battle of Alberta was always intense, and then Chucky definitely brought a little extra spark to that," said the Florida Panthers' Sam Bennett, Tkachuk's teammate now and also back then with the Flames. "Those are fun games to be a part of."

Tkachuk's rivalry with the Oilers would continue into his days with the Panthers. On Nov. 28, 2022, he made his first visit back to Edmonton as a member of Florida. He was booed whenever he touched the puck.

And in true Tkachuk fashion, he silenced the crowd with a first-period goal, and then taunted Edmonton fans by cupping his glove to his ear as he celebrated.

THE TALE OF Matthew Tkachuk vs. the Edmonton Oilers isn't just one of contentious, violent rivalry.

It's also one of the NHL's greatest recent "what-ifs?"

Because in 2016, Tkachuk was one draft pick away from becoming an Oiler.

The first two picks in the draft that year were obvious: Center Auston Matthews was going first overall to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Finnish winger Patrik Laine was bound for the Winnipeg Jets.

The Columbus Blue Jackets held the third overall pick, and mock draft after mock draft predicted they'd select Finnish winger Jesse Puljujarvi. It was so expected that TSN ran an article titled, "Here's what happens after No. 3" in the draft.

Except when it was time for the third overall pick, Blue Jackets head scout Ville Sirén announced they had selected center Pierre Luc-Dubois of the Quebec Major Junior league.

Surprise swept through the arena in Buffalo, from fans to the live broadcasts. But the Jackets had indicated they might draft for positional need, and Dubois was the next best center on the board.

The Oilers had been projected by some to select Tkachuk at No. 4 after the Jackets took Puljujarvi. Except now Puljujarvi was still on the board, and Edmonton snagged him with that pick.

Puljujarvi was a major disappointment in Edmonton, playing six seasons before he was traded to Carolina. Tkachuk has 461 more points in his NHL career than Puljujarvi.

How close did Tkachuk come to becoming an Oiler? Four years ago, he told TSN Radio that they appeared ready to draft him before Dubois went to Columbus.

"During the draft, on the draft floor, it was kind of a weird moment where some people at the Edmonton table -- you could ask them, they would probably deny it -- but they're kind of staring me down and kind of giving me some smiles. The only people that saw it were me and my mom. So we're like, 'All right, we're going to Edmonton,'" he said. "Then Pierre-Luc Dubois went third overall, and the phone started to ring like crazy at the Edmonton table. They threw the jersey under the table and it looked like they stripped off a name and gave it to Puljujarvi with the next pick."

Tkachuk was drafted sixth overall by the Flames. The rest is (alternate) history.

TKACHUK SAID HE HAD "kind of like a Christmas Eve feeling" before the Stanley Cup Final, giddy with anticipation for trying to win the Cup after the Panthers lost in the championship round last season to the Vegas Golden Knights.

When asked about the Oilers, there was no trash talk, no bulletin board material.

"They're a great team. Finally got to watch some of their games against Dallas, since we were playing every other night. It was good to watch their games," he said. "They played really well and ultimately deserved to win the West. It should make for a great final."

After Florida went up 2-0 in the series with its Game 2 victory, Tkachuk was asked if the Oilers were rattled.

Again, he deferred.

"No, I don't think so. It's just sometimes the way it goes," he said, before leaving the media scrum.

The story of Matthew Tkachuk vs. the Edmonton Oilers is also a story of a young, brash superstar at the apex of his brashness who says he's a much different player today. Tkachuk speaks with pride about what he perceives to be the Panthers' maturity as a team and his own discipline on the ice, in contrast with how he'd played in the Battle of Alberta, for example.

"I'd say that used to be a part of my game. Now it's pretty nonexistent," he said. "I've kind of learned what works, and what works is playing as hard as I can for 30 to 45 seconds -- well, sometimes I take the long shift, so 30 seconds to a minute. There's no need to waste your time doing extra stuff."

Panthers coach Paul Maurice has cited the 26-year-old Tkachuk's maturity throughout the season, starting with how he approached this campaign after Florida's stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final last season.

Maurice said Tkachuk was part of the leadership group that got the Panthers locked in to their defensive game this season, which was a byproduct of missing Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour at the start of 2023-24 after surgeries. He said Tkachuk's attitude from the start of training camp help set the efficient, business-like tone of Florida's approach.

"Last year, I think we were just kind of riding the wave," Tkachuk said before the conference finals. "Going into this, we know what it's going to take to ultimately come out on top."

Tkachuk is tied with Aleksander Barkov with 19 points to lead all Panthers scorers. He hasn't had the soaring moments as regularly as he did last playoff run.

But Maurice is confident that Tkachuk is still capable of them.

"His game is better. He's more disciplined. He's matured with this group over two years. I think he's ... primed," the coach said. "I would never bet against him coming up with some heroics, but it's certainly not the only thing we have to expect now when we come to the rink from him."

If Tkachuk is going to have a signature moment in this run for the Panthers, having it happen in Edmonton seems appropriate, given their history.

It's possible Tkachuk could skate the Cup for the first time in his career right over the Oilers' logo at center ice -- the ultimate last laugh for the player who was Public Enemy No. 1 in Edmonton.