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Duchene living his childhood dreams with Avalanche

Wednesday, 07.01.2009 / 10:28 AM / 2009 NHL Entry Draft

By Rick Sadowski  -  NHL.com Correspondent

"I still remember watching their 2001 Stanley Cup victory against New Jersey. I had all my Avalanche apparel on and I was sitting in front of the TV with a big bag of popcorn. I remember Alex Tanguay scoring -- he came around the net and roofed one on the wraparound. I just jumped out of my chair. I was pretty young and I watched the whole celebration."
-- Matt Duchene

DENVER -- While making his first visit to the Pepsi Center on Tuesday, Colorado Avalanche top draft pick Matt Duchene needed to walk past framed photographs of Stanley Cup celebrations before entering the locker room.

The pictures brought back vivid memories for the 18-year-old center, who cheered for the Avalanche while growing up in Haliburton, Ontario.

"I still remember watching their 2001 Stanley Cup victory against New Jersey," Duchene said. "I had all my Avalanche apparel on and I was sitting in front of the TV with a big bag of popcorn. I remember Alex Tanguay scoring -- he came around the net and roofed one on the wraparound. I just jumped out of my chair. I was pretty young and I watched the whole celebration.

"So this is unbelievable. I have so many memories of growing up and this is part of who I am, cheering for the Avs and wearing their colors and their logo. It's hard to believe that it's going to be like this for a while."

While it isn't a given that Duchene, selected with the third pick in last Friday's Entry Draft, will be wearing an Avalanche jersey in 2009-10, it's a fact that the Colorado team he eventually joins will have a completely different makeup than the one he rooted for as a child.

Patrick Roy retired six years ago and Sakic has yet to announce whether he will return for a 21st NHL season, leaving Adam Foote and Milan Hejduk as the lone members of the most recent championship team certain to be wearing Colorado colors in the fall.

After finishing in the Western Conference basement last season and missing the playoffs for the second time in three years, the Avalanche are in a rebuilding mode.

"Once the season was over, once we started to get into June, then the focus totally went into the draft and there was a renewed optimism," says Rick Pracey, the Avalanche's chief amateur scout. "We've seen the models of the successes in Washington and Pittsburgh and Chicago, teams that have had multiple high picks. In a perfect world, that (won't be) the case for us. We're hoping this was a one-time shot.

"There are a lot of things the organization has to take into account and address, but, at the same time, it was very important for us to take advantage of the situation -- put the season behind us and move on. That was the mindset and we were prepared and we're very pleased with how it turned out."

A new management/coaching team is in place, led by General Manager Greg Sherman and coach Joe Sacco, and the Avalanche eventually hope to rely heavily on 2009 draft picks like Duchene, center Ryan O'Reilly (second round, No. 33) and defenseman Stefan Elliott (second round, No. 49) to get the team back on a championship track.

"I think it's really exciting," Duchene said after he, O'Reilly and Elliott got their first looks at their future Denver digs. "Obviously when Sakic and Forsberg and Roy came in, this was a team that had been pretty good, but hadn't won a Cup. Those three guys kind of helped shape the franchise.

"Now, with guys like O'Reilly and Elliott, it'll be really neat to kind of follow in those guys' footsteps and help do the same thing, along with the talented players they already have."

A 5-foot-11, 200-pounder, Duchene is coming off his second season with the Brampton Battalion in the Ontario Hockey League, with whom he had 31 goals and 48 assists in 57 regular-season games. He added 14 goals and 12 assists in 21 playoff games.

Nice numbers, sure, but Pracey was just as interested in Duchene's intangible qualities.

"When you meet him, you can feel his energy and his desire to be a hockey player," Pracey said. "You can feel his passion for the game. We went to his home and spent time with his family. They have an outdoor rink right next to the driveway and a home gym in the basement. He has framed jerseys (of Sakic and Roy) from when he was a kid.

"We also feel, in the dressing room and in a leadership setting and in an area where there's high expectations … not only does Matt have ability on the ice, but we think he has the personality that's going to carry him and make him a key member of this franchise."

Pracey believes Duchene, who has one year of junior eligibility remaining, is capable of playing in the NHL right away.

"I have no reservations of saying that skill-wise and instinct-wise Matt can play at the next level next season," Pracey says. "But we have a development camp and a rookie camp and training camp. We want to do what's right for Matt as a person, what's right for us as an organization. We've seen history prove that right away isn't always the best way."

Much of that decision will hinge on whether Sakic returns or retires following two injury-riddled seasons in a row. He's informed the Avalanche of his plans, but Sherman said no announcement would be made until after the longtime captain returns from a family vacation.

"If he doesn't come back, that opens up a center position and I guess increases my chances a little bit," Duchene said. "But he's a guy you never want to see retire. It'd be great to go to camp with him. To play with him would be unbelievable. It'd be really cool.

"I think I'm pretty ready in terms of skill. In strength I think I'm pretty close; that's got to definitely keep improving over the course of the summer. I've always been a guy who's been known for lower-body strength in the corners and in the battles. We'll see how it goes."