Let’s talk about Matt Duchene again
In our 2014 collaboration, Save By Roy, co-author Adrian Dater and I chronicled the Avalanche’s surprising turnaround 2013-14 season, their first after Joe Sakic was elevated to general manager and Patrick Roy took over as coach. Spoiler alert: Under Roy, the Avalanche went from second-worst in the league in the lockout-shortened 2013 season to third-best in 2013-14, with 112 points. The storybook season ended with a first-round playoff loss to the Wild, with the home team winning the first six games before the Wild took Game 7 in Denver in overtime.
Much of the book was our narrative of that season, but we also dropped in profiles of each Avalanche player. Now that a major figure in Save By Roy, Matt Duchene, is going to be with the Nashville Predators for the upcoming first-round series against his former team, we thought it would be fun and enlightening to drop in our portrait of the then-young Avalanche star center. Remember: This was written in 2014. There’s actually considerable inadvertent foreshadowing both in this profile and the book itself. When I was covering or around the team when he was here, I appreciated Matt’s professionalism and cooperation, and also liked him. — Terry Frei
NO. 9, MATT DUCHENE, 5′11″, 200 LBS., BORN JANUARY
16, 1991, HALIBURTON, ONTARIO
When Patrick Roy shoved the glass that first night against Anaheim, one player on the Avalanche bench was chortling, feeling he was flashing back to watching as a kid as Roy challenged not one, but two, Detroit goaltenders during the heyday of the rivalry.
“You always have that kid part of you, and I’m still pretty young at heart,” Duchene said. “I’m good at relating to young kids and keeping that fun childhood side. I just remember watching those battles and dreaming of being there one day. When you’re young, you don’t have any clue what it’s about, but it looks like a lot of fun. You’re playing for something so big. Especially being from Canada, where we eat, sleep, and breathe hockey, seeing those battles going on was pretty cool. Then, seeing Patrick getting fired up like that the first game I was playing for him, brought back some childhood memories, for sure. That’s where I went to at that point. All that was going on, and I was trying not to laugh. Everybody was all mad and swearing and yelling, and trying to fight each other, and I was sitting there, trying not to laugh. I was in another place.”
That “other place” was childhood.
In Haliburton, Ontario, officially a “village” about 135 miles northeast of Toronto, young Duchene at first wanted to play the same position Roy played.
“As a kid, I was obsessed with goalies,” Duchene said. “I almost became a goalie. I would have been one if my dad had let me. I loved the gear. When I was starting hockey, if my dad [Vince] had said, ‘All right, I’ll buy you all the gear, and you can play in net,’ I would have. My dad was a goalie, so he knew what it was like. He knew the pressures. Parents know what’s best, what their kids need, for the most part, and he saw that I had some talent as a forward. He said, ‘You can play net in ball hockey at school and with me.’ He got me new road hockey gear every Christmas, so that was the first thing. Then, when Patrick came over from Montreal to Colorado, I was just watching, and I loved the way he stood and played. He was the reason I became an Avs fan, which is pretty cool now that I’m playing for him.”
Duchene had a framed and autographed Joe Sakic jersey hanging in the basement of his family’s home, and, as the years passed, he switched his loyalty to the Avalanche almost exclusively. He followed all the Colorado moves—including the goalie fights—with rapt and wide-eyed interest. His father and his mother, Chris, indulged him, never suggesting that he follow a team closer to home. When Alex Tanguay scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in 2001, young Duchene had a bucket of popcorn in his lap and jumped up, spilling the popcorn all over.
“The goalie side of me really loved to watch Patrick; and the player side of me, when I was playing, every game I pretended to be a player,” Duchene said. “My mom would always say, ‘Who are you going to be today, Matt?’ I was five, six, seven years old, and I would be either Joe Sakic or Peter Forsberg. Those two guys, plus Patrick, were the guys I looked up to. They made me a diehard Avs fan, for sure. I used to take it personally when they lost. I took it harder back then when they lost than I do now. I know that sounds crazy. You’re day by day now, and you’re more mature, but when they lost in the play-offs, I bawled my eyes out a couple of times as a young kid.”
Meanwhile, when it became apparent that the young Duchene might have a bright future in the game, his family went along with Matt playing his minor hockey in Lindsay, Ontario. Because it was a “zone” or hub-type program for the region, he wasn’t the only player traveling significant distances, but he might have been the mileage champ.
“I drove an hour and fifteen minutes to practice six times a week,” he recalled—making it clear he wasn’t the one doing the driving, and that it all represented family sacrifice.
As he starred in the Lindsay program, he always sought to “play up” an age classification, but some resented that and tried to block it.
“There were some tears shed over that, because it got so personal with me,” Duchene said. “I fought that for eight years. My dad fought hard for me to get that. It was a key to development. I played up until my last two years of minor hockey, and they had found a way to keep me from playing up, but that was OK because by then it was time for me to play at my own age.
“Hockey parents are crazy, and we came across some that were crazy. We were just trying to mind our own business, and my dad, who’s a very smart hockey guy, was trying to do whatever he could to help me develop into what I could be, and he knew what I needed, and we did whatever we had to do. He probably seemed like a crazy hockey parent, too, but he knew what he was doing.”
Eventually, at age fifteen, Duchene left Haliburton to play major junior for the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Brampton Battalion. “I went from a town of 1,500 people to a [high] school of 2,500 kids,” he said. “It was very different for me.”
Eligible for the NHL draft after his second season with the Battalion, Duchene was considered a sure bet to go near the top of the first round. The Avalanche had the third choice, thanks to their Western Conference-worst 32–45–5 record. The selection order ended up what most had considered likely going in—center John Tavares to the Islanders, Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and then Duchene to Colorado. [General Manager] Greg Sherman announced the choice at Montreal’s Bell Centre; Duchene, who quickly donned an ’09 Avalanche jersey, couldn’t contain his excitement.
“I keep looking down at the logo, going, ‘Are you kidding me?,’” he said that day. “I used to draw their logo every day in school. I’m just so happy. Every kid dreams of playing for his boyhood team. It’s crazy. They have not had a top pick in many years, and the one year I’m available and rated up there, they have it. It’s kind of fate, I guess.”
Two weeks after the draft, on July 9, 2009, Duchene and several top Avalanche prospects skated in a development camp workout at Family Sports Center. Then they went en masse to the Inverness Hotel, filed into a ballroom, sat in the back row of chairs, and watched and listened as Sakic officially announced his retirement.
“Obviously, it would have been great to skate with him at least in camp, or whatever,” Duchene said that day. He seemed embarrassed when he was asked if he had considered the irony of taking his first skate as a member of the Avalanche on the day Sakic retired. The question, of course, came with the assumption that the torch might eventually pass from Sakic to Duchene. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess you guys can decide that. I don’t really know what to say to that. I haven’t been to a camp or been to a game yet.”
Under Coach Joe Sacco, Duchene got off to a slow start as a rookie. He was such a student of the game, though, that he could recite virtually game by game the progression of Tampa Bay wunderkind Steven Stamkos the previous season. His point was that Stamkos hadn’t burst out of the gate, either, before finishing with twenty-three goals. Eventually Duchene got going, scored twenty-four goals, and was a Calder Trophy finalist in the season. He finished third, behind Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers and Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard, but he was the top vote getter among the 2009 draft crop. Myers had gone to the Sabres in 2008 and Howard to the Red Wings in 2003.
In his first two seasons Duchene lived in the basement at the Foote household, with the Avalanche defenseman; his wife, Jennifer; and sons, Callan and Nolan. Duchene at times seemed like a third Foote
child, playing video games with the two boys. At the rink, his relationship with Sacco was strained, and even Duchene at the time acknowledged that he needed to be more attentive in the defensive end of the ice. He was named to the All-Star Game in his second season, and he wasn’t out of place, but his relationship with Sacco was deteriorating.
In a November 4, 2010, game against Vancouver, Sacco humiliated and angered Duchene by keeping him on the bench for the final fourteen minutes of the second period in a 3–1 loss to the Canucks. Sacco was certainly within his rights to bench him, as Duchene in his first three years occasionally was plagued by too much dipsy doodle play with the puck, things that might look pretty on a YouTube video but drove the old-school Sacco crazy.
Duchene could accept being benched for stretches of a game. If he deserved it, he wouldn’t whine about it. Well, maybe a little. The thing that seemed to really drive a wedge between Sacco—and Duchene, among others—was Sacco’s stubbornness in sticking with a system that they were convinced wouldn’t work.
In the 2011–12 season, Duchene’s third, he moved into his own Greenwood Village condominium and had a team-high twelve goals at the Christmas break. But he suffered a knee injury the next week and scored only two goals the rest of the season in limited work, playing in only fifty-eight games. He signed a two-year, $7-million contract, seemingly accepting the challenge to prove himself worthy of a longer-term commitment.
By the time the truncated 2013 season opened, Duchene was in better condition than he had ever been, partially because of a gluten-free diet and a new trainer, Andy O’Brien. “I’ve changed everything—eating, stuff in the gym, stuff I do before games, everything,” he said. “I eat fish almost every day, taking some different supplements and stuff. What I wanted to do this summer was learn more about my body and what made it tick. I was doing some stuff that worked for some guys, but it didn’t work for me. I’m the type of guy who doesn’t accept failure, and last year obviously didn’t go the way I wanted in the second half, so it was time to make some adjustments.”
In the Avalanche’s otherwise horrible 2013 season, he was one of the bright lights, with seventeen goals in forty-seven games. Duchene was the most outgoing of the Avalanche’s young stars,
capable of talking as fast as he skated—well, almost—and willing to speak frankly, sometimes defying the conventions. Although his casual wardrobe—he could look like a guy headed off to do his chores on the family farm after practice—drew some teasing, he also had ranked near the top of his high school class and dabbled in art, guitar playing, and writing. His summer 2013 contract extension was a reward, an expression of faith from the organization following Sakic’s elevation and Roy’s hiring.
Early in the season, he finally spoke publicly about his dissatisfaction with Sacco.
“There were very few people in this room who were happy,” Duchene said. “Our style of play—it wasn’t right for this team. We knew it would fail. That was the hard part. We knew success was going to be short-lived. It was hard to really be excited about it. For myself, it was really hard to look at what we were doing and think it would keep on working.
“I think there’s always been a plan [here]. People are professionals, and they always have a plan, but is it the right plan? We’ve had a young, fast, offensively gifted team for four years and haven’t been able to show that every night. The only time we ever seemed to play that way was against a team that really opened it up and let us play that way.”
Of the changes under Roy, Duchene said: “The one thing with Patrick is, there’s no doghouse. If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, he’s going to bring you in, he’s going to sit you down, and you’re going to correct it constructively, and then you’re going to move on from there. You don’t stay in that doghouse. It’s the first time I can honestly say everyone in this room is excited.”
The major issue, of course, was whether this was a honeymoon period—or whether it would last.
POSTSCRIPT: Duchene became disaffected with his childhood-favorite team and asked to be traded. Eventually, after much tension, the Avalanche sent him to Ottawa in a multi-team deal in November 2017. He was traded to Columbus as a rental in early 2019 and signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Predators in the offseason. This is his third season with Nashville and he has a cap hit of $8 million through 2025-26.