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Then and Now: Comparing Gordie Howe and Matthew Tkachuk

Legendary hockey reporter Stan Fischler writes a weekly scrapbook for Fischler, known as “The Hockey Maven,” shares his humor and insight with readers every Wednesday.

This week Fischler compares power forwards from different eras in his “Then and Now” feature: Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe and Matthew Tkachuk of the Florida Panthers.

For starters, I must emphasize that I consider Gordie Howe the best hockey player I’ve ever seen and it borders on blasphemy to compare anyone to “Mr. Hockey.” Yet, in my estimation, the one current player who most reminds me of Howe is Matthew Tkachuk of the Florida Panthers.

The Tale of the Tape tells us that we’re comparing two pure power forwards. During his NHL career, spanning 1946-1980, Howe measured 6-feet, 205 pounds, fearsome for the Original Six era. Tkachuk is a robust 6-2, 201.

Howe was held in such high regard by opponents that Hall of Fame center Dave Keon of the Toronto Maple Leafs once put it this way: “There are two weak teams in the League and four strong ones. The weak ones are Boston and New York, and the strong ones are Toronto, Montreal, Chicago and Gordie Howe.”

By the time Howe hung up his skates for good in 1980, he had scored 801 goals. Howe also won the Hart and Art Ross Trophies six times each and completed his Hall of Fame career (1,767 NHL games played) with 1,850 points. Howe’s 1,685 penalty minutes not only attests to his testiness, but also bears a similarity to Tkachuk’s rugged style.

The way Howe intimidated goalies — especially his off-ice pal, Johnny Bower of the Maple Leafs — is the way Tkachuk battles current goalies. For example, on Jan. 25, 2021, Tkachuk steamrollered Jack Campbell, then the Maple Leafs goalie. The collision was typical of his aggressiveness and by the time social media got through with him you could have mistaken Tkachuk for Darth Vader on skates.

“I bring a certain swagger to the ice,” Tkachuk said. “It’s confidence, not cockiness. I’m here (in Florida) to be on the last team standing.”

Video: Matthew Tkachuk at No. 28 on NHL Network’s countdown

Howe had a lot to say, too. After a well-publicized slugfest with New York Rangers rugged defenseman Fred Shero during that 1946-47 season, Howe established his philosophy of what he liked to call “The man’s game.”

“You take fighting out of hockey and it would really make it dull,” Howe said.

Tkachuk doesn’t back down either. He’s averaging roughly one penalty minute per game in the NHL, 425 PIM in 431 games with the Calgary Flames before being traded to the Panthers on July 22. The common denominator when it comes to their style is a bulldozer approach to offense.

“The only way to stop Howe was to crowd him and then throw him off stride,” former Maple Leafs defenseman Kent Douglas said. “But nobody wanted to get near Gordie Howe.”

The same could be said of Tkachuk who, according to Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughtyis an opponent with a negative charisma quotient.

“I have lots of friends on other teams,” Doughty said. “And they also don’t love Tkachuk.”

In Tkachuk’s case, it’s a matter of like-father, like-son. After all it was none other than Keith Tkachuk, a power forward who scored 538 goals from 1991-2010, who was credited with defining a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” as a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game.

During the 1996-97 season, Keith Tkachuk led the NHL in goals with 52 and had 228 penalty minutes. Matthew enjoyed his most productive campaign last season with 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points, to go with 68 PIM.

Now, Matthew Tkachuk brings his intensity to a new team and new division.

“I used to hate Edmonton,” Tkachuk said, “but I hate Tampa more now. I know that the Lightning know what it takes to win and we’re going to learn that.”

Panthers general manager Bill Zito, who engineered the trade that brought Tkachuk to Florida, knows that the forward can be a difference maker, just like Howe was in a different era.

“Matt wants that puck,” enthused Zito, “and he wants the shot.”

That same gung-ho attitude is what Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau had in mind when he said, “Trying to strong-arm Gordie off the puck in a corner was akin to wrestling with a telephone pole.”

Nowadays, enemy players share that feeling about the fearsome Tkachuk, who sums up his thinking with the same attitude that drove Howe: “I’m here to win.”