Inside the NHL's nastiest feud: Matthew Tkachuk vs. Zack Kassian
The NHL's Battle of Alberta between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers has been reignited, thanks in part to the personal feud between Flames pest (and NHL All-Star!) Matthew Tkachuk and Oilers tough guy Zack Kassian.
The next two rounds are slated for Wednesday night in Edmonton and Saturday in Calgary (streaming live on ESPN+) -- and the fact that both teams are in contention for playoff spots ramps up the intensity even more. Here's everything you need to know about the NHL's nastiest personal rivalry of the moment.
Who is Matthew Tkachuk?
Son of Keith, brother of Brady and one of the NHL's most talented agitators. The 22-year-old Flames winger has 212 points in 273 NHL games, along with 262 penalty minutes. Tkachuk was previously engaged in one of the league's hottest feuds with Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who called Tkachuk "a dirty kid" and said, "I respect everyone else. I'll never talk to him off the ice." Now, Tkachuk is in a snarl with Zack Kassian.
Who is Zack Kassian?
Kassian, 29, has 171 points and 780 penalty minutes in 510 NHL games in his career with Buffalo, Vancouver and Edmonton, with whom he has played since 2015-16. While not the most gifted offensive player, Kassian has been a frequent linemate of Oilers star Connor McDavid and is having his best scoring season, with 13 goals and 15 assists in 44 games. Loves dishing out physical punishment. Not so much a fan of taking some himself -- or at least not from Matthew Tkachuk.
What's their beef?
In a Flames vs. Oilers game on Jan. 11 in Calgary, Tkachuk rocked Kassian with two bodychecks that Kassian felt were "predatory" in nature. The second hit knocked off Kassian's helmet, and he responded by grabbing and attacking Tkachuk with his fists. Kassian was given a double minor penalty for roughing and a misconduct, and Calgary scored the game-winning goal on the ensuing power play.
Rather than follow the hockey "code" and fight Kassian, Tkachuk followed the pest code and relished his conquest. "I'm not fighting him. Tough little trade-off there," Tkachuk said. "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."
What was the aftermath for Kassian?
The NHL Department of Player Safety ruled that both of Tkachuk's hits were legal by the letter of their law. But it handed Kassian a two-game suspension for his attack -- a suspension that, perhaps not coincidentally, made him eligible to return for Wednesday's grudge match against the Flames.
Kassian blasted Tkachuk in speaking to the media after his suspension and made a not-so-veiled threat for retribution. "I'd do it all over again," Kassian said. "You play with fire, eventually you're going to get burned. He messed with the wrong guy. I don't think he realizes we play in the same division."
What was the aftermath for Tkachuk?
He was lambasted by a dozen former players for his hits and for not fighting Kassian.
Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne said that Kassian was "protecting himself from two dangerous hits." Former NHL goalie Corey Hirsch said they were "two reckless hits to the head" that forced Kassian "to take matters into his own hands," and that if those hits were on McDavid, instead, then Tkachuk would have gotten a 10-game suspension, at a minimum.
Ryan Kesler, who played a similar style to that of Tkachuk, said on his podcast: "You got to at least throw. You can't just turtle like he did after you throw two clean but dirty hits. I love that Kassian is receiving so much respect and congratulations from other players and GMs around the league. I think everybody that knows the game of hockey thinks what Kassian did was right."
What was Tkachuk's response to that criticism?
He claims he ignores it like ... well, like he ignores an invitation to fight Kassian.
"Whether it's positive or negative, I don't really listen to anyone unless they're close to me. So if people say something and think they have an opinion, not with me they don't," Tkachuk said at the NHL All-Star Game, where he was Pacific Division teammates with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl of the Oilers without incident.
"Nobody remembers anything. We're just here to have a good time," Tkachuk added.
How have the fans responded?
The Battle of Alberta lines remain drawn, with Calgary fans mostly backing Tkachuk and Edmonton fans supporting Kassian. But some Flames fans took their message to the streets -- purchasing a "Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour" billboard that appeared in Edmonton, with Wednesday as the next tour date.
What can we expect from this feud when the Oilers and Flames meet on Wednesday night?
Potentially not too much escalation. George Parros, the NHL Department of Player Safety boss, and Stephen Walkom, NHL director of officiating, will be in Rogers Place for the game, and the teams will be aware of it. But that just means that any retribution from Kassian could arrive in a different form than his fists.
"After speaking on the phone, Parros explained why [Tkachuk's] hit was not dirty," Kassian said. "That gave me some clarity about what you can and can't do now. So I'll put that in the memory bank."