Flames head coach Ward comes to defence of Tkachuk

Geoff Ward looked directly into the camera, spoke clearly and calmly and made a statement Sunday afternoon on the Calgary Flames’ media conference call.

The reporter who asked the first question, regarding how he ensures his team doesn’t get caught up in the extracurriculars surrounding Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk, might as well have stayed silent because the head coach was on a mission to stand up for one of the team’s — and the National Hockey League’s — biggest stars.

“Let’s address the monkey in the room right now,” Ward began. “I feel at this point in time, I have to defend my player because there has been some shots taken at him now for a couple days in the media…”

Those first shots had come from Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice on Saturday night, following the Flames’ 4-1 win in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, in the wake of his club losing its co-scoring leader and engine Mark Scheifele in an incident along the boards with Tkachuk.

Tkachuk and Scheifele were both skating towards the boards with Tkachuk looking to finish a check on Scheifele. But when Scheifele shifted directions, Tkachuk was caught off-balance and, suddenly, the Jets’ first-line centre was writhing in pain on the ice.

Maurice called Tkachuk’s intentional, indicating it had been a “filthy, dirty kick to the back” of Scheifele’s leg.

“You can’t see it on the program feed, but you take the blueline feed and you zoom in, he went after the back of his leg,” Maurice said. “He could have cut his Achilles. He could have ended the man’s career. It’s an absolutely filthy, disgusting hit.”

The Jets boss hadn’t cooled off any on Sunday, indicating he “would stick by every word” that he said. He said Tkachuk plays on the edge but believes he clearly crossed the line on that play. Jets forward Adam Lowry agreed with Maurice, that Tkachuk’s actions had been intentional, that he can play reckless at times.

Ward continued.

“Let’s talk about the incident,” said the Flames interim head coach. “First of all, Mark Scheifele is an elite player in the league. He’s an excellent player. For me, Mark Scheifele is coming into our zone. He’s turning up to make a play to get away from contact. A lot of players do it in that area of the ice, across the league. Matthew Tkachuk is coming behind him. Is he going to finish his check? Absolutely, he is going to finish his check. We want all our players to finish checks, legally, at this time of year, but we want to play hard. So Matthew Tkachuk, there is no doubt in my mind, he is coming in to finish his check. But when Mark Scheifele turns up, he changes his angle, and Matthew gets a get a little bit off-balance, and they go into the wall hard.”

Ward, who is one game into his first tenure as an NHL head coach after spending years in the regular and post-season as an assistant, explained Tkachuk’s point of view.

“Now, knowing Matthew Tkachuk, was there intent for him to put his skate onto Mark Scheifele? No — 100%, there was no intent for him to do that,” Ward said. “If we’re talking about another player — if it was Johnny Gaudreau instead of Matthew Tkachuk, then we’re probably not even talking about it. Is it an unfortunate injury? Yes. But we’ve all gone and been on teams in the playoffs where injuries have happened to our players.”

There had been no penalty called on the play at the time, nor had the NHL explored the incident further despite Maurice’s comments.

Tkachuk’s reputation in the NHL is far from spotless through four seasons in the NHL, but Ward acknowledged that the 22-year-old, who is the son of longtime NHLer Keith Tkachuk, deserves the benefit of the doubt.

“The one thing I will say about Matthew Tkachuk and people have to remember is that he is an elite player in our league as well,” Ward said. “And knowing him as a guy and knowing the family and the way that he was brought up in the game, there is no way that he was brought up to kick. Nobody is. So for me, looking at Matthew after … it really bothered him. The injury bothered him.

“Nobody wants to see players get hurt at this time of year. We all need our good players to play. We need our elite players in the game. Because it sells the game, and we all understand that.

“So it’s unfortunate. But it was not intentional. We all understand what the noise is around it.”

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