Nick Tarnasky was born in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, a 7,000-person town two-and-a-half hours from Calgary. But people often think he's from Russia.
When he was signed by the Buffalo Sabres’ organization, Max Legault said he figured the 28-year-old winger was from overseas.
“I thought he was Euro,” Legualt said. “Not only because of his name, but he played in the KHL, too.”
Tarnasky was also known for his time with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, but spent last season in his faux homeland in the KHL playing for Chekhov Vityaz. He’s been in more fights than Ivan Drago and has dirty blonde hair. You can see how teammates would connect the dots.
“I think it’s a compliment to my offensive game,” Tarnasky said.
That joke may have been more ironic in the past, but this year Tarnasky had 16 goals and 10 assists to go along with 17 fights for the Rochester Americans. The 6-foot-2 (generously listed at 230-pounds) Canadian cleverly called it the "Triple-Double" and laughed out loud at his own invention of the term.
His teammates probably didn't realize he could score or that he has a sense of humor. If you YouTube search some of his fights, you wouldn't expect him to be all that friendly. Then again, they also thought he was from Russia.
Tarnasky's become something more than just some tough Russian guy. What it is that he’s become, though, is difficult to pinpoint. When you ask teammates, they struggle to define what he’s meant to the club. Big brother, leader…things like that just don't seem to capture it. It's more.
Two days before the Amerks' post-season opener, head coach Chadd Cassidy stood in his skates, leaning against a concrete wall outside the Rochester locker room. Cassidy loves to talk about hockey, gets sarcasm, and doesn't mind placating even the worst questions with a polite answer.
As hockey coaches go, he's the friendliest with the media maybe in the history of hockey and media. His predecessor – now Sabres interim head coach – Ron Rolston often bristled at unimpressive lines of questioning. Cassidy, on the other hand, can even muster a laugh after a bad loss.
Cassidy reflected on taking over for Rolston in February. The 39-year-old lost his first four games as head coach of the Amerks. It appeared Rochester's chances of heading to the playoffs for the second straight year under the ownership of Terry Pegula might be in trouble. It looked like the season might go off the rails. Not only did Rolston head to Buffalo, but the team's captain Kevin Porter was called up and shortly after their second best goal scorer Brian Flynn and No. 1 defenseman Mark Pysyk too.
Cassidy turned to his leaders including Tarnasky.
“When he talks, people listen in that room,” the Amerks’ coach said. “It was important for me that Nick knew where I came from and was on the same page as me. And he has been. It’s been incredible.”
The respect of the group comes because of Tarnasky’s experience – he’s played in 245 NHL games. He thinks and speaks the game, too. There’s a stereotype that guys who fight are cavemen, but his teammates say Tarnasky has a deep understanding of hockey. He makes smart decisions on the ice and provides honest insight on the bench and in the locker room.
“He's not a meathead,” Legault said. “It’s good to have feedback from him because he’s played the game so long. Guys like him and Ellis and McCormick, they know what to do. But he has a different way of telling the guys because that’s how he is.”
The speak-listen effect also comes because he’s willing to take punishment so others won’t have to – to sacrifice his body, possibly his future, to protect them on the ice.
“Guys are a little more quiet when he’s out there, that’s for sure,” Legualt said. “When I play with him, it helps me. Knowing how many times he’s fought for me, I’ve thanked him for that. I’m not a fighter but there are guys who are 6-foot-7 who are going at me but they know he’s a threat all the time.”
Believe it or not, there's been a different, less violent tone on the ice at Blue Cross Arena this season – likely in large part because nobody wants to answer to Tarnasky. The only players who push the limits are newbs who veterans refuse to bother with or other players of his caliber of toughness (of which there are few).
One night, Tarnasky became irritated with an opponent pushing the limits. He stood up on the bench during a stoppage, made a slashing motion with his arm and screamed something to those involved. After that, nobody hit anybody.
Cassidy compares Tarnasky's bench chatter and intimidation to that of Steve Ott on the Sabres.
“Through my career, especially in the NHL, I was only playing six or seven minutes a night,” Tarnasky said. “As far as being ready to play, you have to find a way if you aren't going to have a shift every three minutes or even go a whole period without a shift, you have to stay ready to play somehow. I adapted to vocal energy instead of physical energy.”
With the big Canadian (Russian) on his line, finesse scorer Luke Adam had the courage of Mark Messier. Legault checks freely. And when he played with rookie Frederick Roy, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound forward felt at home playing his pesky/tough game.
“I have a lot of respect for guys who are going to sacrifice themselves for the team,” Roy said. “I'll never have as many fights as he will, but I like to play the hard way too. I think there's a mutual respect there.”
Cassidy called Roy and Tarnasky “Mutt and Jeff.” They are two of a kind despite the differences in size and Tarnasky has likewise respect for the little winger's propensity to stick up for a teammate.
It's an attitude that's pervasive on the Amerks. One that fans have come to enjoy. It starts with Tarnasky and trickles down. Their playing style, leadership (and outstanding goaltending) are, in the opinion of the coach and players, highly responsible for the team winning those last 15 of 22 and making the post-season.
The Amerks are on their last legs, though. The Toronto Marlies lead their series with Rochester two games to none. They are too fast and skilled for Rochester's club and the No. 2 seed Marlies will probably close things out.
If the season does end Wednesday, nobody will be more disappointed to see it go than Tarnasky. Earlier in the year, he said he's never enjoyed coming to the rink as much as he has this season. For the first time in his career, he's appreciated as an enforcer and as a really good hockey player. There's responsibility and trust in his role. There's an opportunity to prove he has good hands and can beat goaltenders like every kid from Rocky Mountain House (or Russia) dreams of doing.
“I think it’s been great,” Tarnasky said. “I put a lot of work into my game during my whole career and it’s rewarding that I’ve earned the opportunity to play some minutes that I wasn’t used to. I’ve played penalty kill sporadically throughout my career, but this year I’ve played penalty kill all season. I really appreciate those opportunities and I think I’ve taken advantage of what I’ve been given.”
The sleepless nights that countless fighters have spoke of in the past – there are probably less of those in Rochester than there were in the KHL where he posted 173 penalty minutes in just 36 games or Springfield with 150 in 66 games. This year, he has 138 penalty minutes in 74 games. It's the most he's played and the least he's had to fight in awhile.
This year is how things used to be – how he likely pictured they'd be when playing junior hockey for the Lethbridge Hurricanes at age 17. He scored 49 points in 71 games and had 108 penalty minutes. An all-around player, not a goon.
But at times during his career he's been forced into that role. And he made the decision to take the job in order to continue playing professional hockey. Many would rather walk away than take (and give out) the punishment.
That's one of the reasons this year has been so special.
Another is that he's been given the opportunity to lead and teach.
“Even sometimes just giving a guy a pat on the back or pointing things out,” he said. “Now rather than just being uptempo and hyping guys, I can tell the young guys situations that can help them or situations I see.”
Cassidy said he would never bench Tarnasky. He said his veteran winger means far too much to his teammates to ever be sat down.
“By no means am I going to take that and run with it, I still have to earn what I'm receiving here,” he said. “It's a big compliment in terms of how I've carried myself this year and what I've done for the team. At the same time, it's also a kick in the ass to keep doing it.”
Where he'll keep doing it is up in the air after this season. Tarnasky is an unrestricted free agent after this season and it's possible his quality play this year will provide a chance to return to the NHL next season. That certainly could be with the Sabres' organization, but there are plenty of other teams who have seen his Triple-Double and taken note.
The Sabres are rebuilding, too. That may mean roster spots in the AHL will be neatly kept with a “prospects only” sign on the front door.
His play, leadership, toughness and intelligence could very well have impressed the front office enough to want to keep him around young players. You might say the same for Matt Ellis or Cody McCormick. Prospects are forced to match their work ethic and intensity or fall down the depth chart. And youngin's get a good hard look at what the toughest NHL players will look like when they get to The Show.
We'll see, I guess.
As Tarnasky heads into what could be his final game on Wednesday night, the future has to be on his mind. Players in his role – even with less fighting this year - have suffered a great deal after their hockey careers. If he were to remain an Amerk, maybe he'd take fewer blows than elsewhere.
But the possibility of long-term injuries goes largely untalked about. It’s the elephant in the room when talking to Tarnasky’s coach and teammates. They all know the potential consequences their alternate captain may face in part as a result of standing up for them. How many of them have avoided injuries because of him? How many will he have in 10 years because he did?
That’s the “something” that they can’t – or would rather not – pinpoint. That's why Tarnasky will always be respected.