There’s a lot of sports personalities in Denver, and nearly all of them are unique, with a personality and style that makes them stand out in a crowd.
But how many would show up to one of the biggest moments of their professional careers dressed in a T-shirt and baseball cap? A Colorado state flag T-shirt, to be specific, and a night-black hat with "VAIL" stitched in white block across the front.
That was the scene last July in the Avalanche’s executive offices when Colorado center Matt Duchene signed a contract extension with the club that will keep him under team control until at least 2019.
Duchene was a walking advertisement for the Centennial State that day, and it was a perfect example of the type of person and player he has become in his fifth season with the Burgundy and Blue.
There might not be many on the Denver sports scene who would have shown up to such an event in casual attire.
But there aren’t many in this city like Matt Duchene.
“I went in my closet and I grabbed that shirt, and I threw it on, just not thinking, and then I put my Vail hat on, and then it hit me,” Duchene says. “I wear that stuff all the time. I love the Colorado flag, and I love Vail, too. That’s normal attire for me, but once I put it on I thought, ‘Is this too much?’ But then I thought, ‘Nah, it will be fitting.’
“Signing the contract wasn’t that much of a milestone moment for me. I don’t really use money and stuff like that as signifying anything. I think the biggest thing I was thinking about in that moment was how long it meant I was going to be a Colorado Avalanche player. I think that’s the biggest thing. It wasn’t about the dollars and cents. Obviously, you do what you need to do as a professional to ensure you set yourself up for life—you take care of business, so to speak—but being an Av is very special for me.”
The day he put pen to paper signified great success for Duchene—he secured his and his family’s financial future with a quick stroke or two of a pen—but it also represented a watershed moment and a major victory for the Avalanche.
Colorado chose Duchene with the third overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft after he emphatically mouthed, “Yes!” to nearby family and friends when his name wasn’t called with Tampa Bay’s second selection. Duchene wanted to play for Colorado—he grew up rooting for Colorado underneath framed and hanged Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic jerseys—and general manager Greg Sherman made that wish come true in a matter of seconds.
In the time since, Duchene has blossomed through ups and downs into one of the NHL’s “next big things.” He had immediate success in his first two years in Denver and after dealing with some third-year injuries and struggles he found his groove again last year before beginning this season on an absolute tear.
“I had two good seasons, and then I had a learning season,” Duchene says confidently. “I had a year where I had to get better and improve some things and change some things up. I look back at that season as a blessing. I’m thankful for it. It’s all about the game and playing for this hockey team and playing my very best all the time. So, I’m very pleased with where that year took me at the end of the day. That’s kind of what I’m still building on now.”
He scored more than a point per game through this season’s first month, tying the Avalanche record for most goals scored in October, including putting in three game winners.
Around Halloween, Canadian broadcast personality and hockey legend Don Cherry anointed Duchene, “The best player in the NHL.” Even though Cherry is known to dish hyperbolic praise, it’s hard to argue. Duchene finished the 2013 calendar year leading the Avalanche in goals, assists, points, power-play goals, game-winning goals and shots.
Whether he is spinning behind the net, showcasing world-class speed down the ice or slapping pucks past never-had-a-chance netminders, Duchene is quickly becoming “that guy” opposing teams spend offseasons, practice sessions and morning skates trying to figure out how to stop.
Opposing coaches lose sleep thinking about how to stop Matt Duchene.
“I really enjoy the pressure that comes with that,” he says. “I know that if I have an off night it’s going to affect the team in some way, and I enjoy that pressure. I like being able to contribute that way and have that responsibility. For me, the way I’m wired, the more pressure and the more responsibility I have, the better I’ll perform.
“It’s a great challenge, and I always love that challenge.”
Duchene means so much more than just numbers to the Avs. As long as he’s wearing an Avalanche sweater Colorado stands a great chance against any opponent, but his value to the team off the ice and in the Denver community might be even more important to the future of the franchise. Duchene simply loves Colorado, and he loves the Avalanche as much as its fans do. Before the 2009 draft in Montreal, he was just another fan, living and dying with every Avs puck drop.
He still does, actually.
Sure, he was born in Haliburton, Ontario and spent his first 18 years north of the border, but he’s always had his eyes on Rocky Mountain hockey. He loved the Avs in the late 1990s and early 2000s—that was a pretty good era for the franchise, no?—and he was just becoming a sports fan in 1995, when the Nordiques moved from Quebec and quickly won a Stanley Cup as the Colorado Avalanche.
By the time 2001 rolled around he was a full-blown Burgundy and Blue supporter, getting goose bumps when Sakic passed the Cup to Ray Bourque after Colorado won its second NHL crown.
Duchene embodies anything a fan could want in a professional sports idol. He loves country music, loves his dog Paisley (named after country star Brad Paisley) and loves fishing. He also loves his family and the great sport of hockey, which he first started playing on his driveway. Duchene is simply everything the Avalanche needs to continue its franchise-wide change in direction. Colorado’s hot start this year laid the groundwork for something potentially fantastic, and Duchene can’t believe he’s in the middle of it all.
“Before a recent game I was standing in my stall right before warm-ups, and I saw my name on the stall beside the Avalanche logo,” Duchene told NHL.com in early November. “I have to pinch myself, and I was like that when I was drafted: Is this real life, or am I imagining it? It’s a huge dream come true for me.”
The dream hasn’t come without hard work, though, and it wasn’t always destined.
Duchene was terrific his first year with the Avalanche, scoring 24 goals and adding 31 assists in 81 games. He also scored the only shootout goal in Colorado’s playoff-clinching 1-0 victory against Vancouver before adding three postseason assists in a six-game series with San Jose.
He followed that with a 27-goal, 40-assist performance in his second year with Colorado and earned a selection to the NHL All-Star Game in January, where he scored a goal and was the youngest Avalanche player to ever participate in the All-Star Game.
Year three wasn’t as kind, though, and this is where his story took a turn and spurred him toward ultimately earning that contract extension in July. Multiple injuries and too much thinking on the ice resulted in a production dip (14 goals/14 assists), and Duchene entered the 2011-12 offseason with much to prove.
After having so much hockey success as a junior and early on in his NHL career, Duchene was at a crossroads in summer 2012. So he decided to do something about it. On the path toward reclaiming his position as one of the game’s bright young stars, Duchene changed his diet, tweaked his strength-training methods and adjusted his mind and mental approach to the game.
He adopted a gluten-free diet, began working with fitness trainer Andy O’Brien, who’s helped many professional athletes reach their goals, and he sought out help from a sports psychologist.
“I took all my strengths, and I wanted to improve those, but I had some weaknesses I wanted to improve on, as well, and I think I basically just took a step back and I looked at every aspect of what makes a hockey player and what makes me tick,” Duchene says. “I knew I had some issues and things that I overlooked at times, and I needed to fix those things and really buckle down and do that. It was tough. Day One was, ‘I’m at the bottom of the mountain, looking up.’ Now, I’m well up the mountain … but the summit is still a long ways away. I’m pushing every day to get there.”
Duchene was born and raised in Haliburton, but he has grown up right in front of the Avalanche fans in Denver. He was a “young lad,” in his words, when the Avalanche thrust the future of the franchise on his shoulders, and he’s still finding his way in this world, let alone in the NHL.
And he is still just 22 years old and part of a bright young group of players in the Avalanche dressing room who all have similar stories.
Ryan O’Reilly, for example, is also just 22, and he was the Avalanche’s second pick in the 2009 draft, just 30 slots after Duchene. Gabriel Landeskog was a first-round choice (second overall) in the 2011 draft and won the NHL’s Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
And, of course, there’s Nathan MacKinnon, whom Colorado selected first overall this past summer and who is now on the same career tract of all of the above.
There is much young and not yet fully realized talent on the Avalanche roster, and Duchene finds himself in a situation that really only presents itself in professional sports. Even though he’s the age now that most college graduates are when they step off their respective campuses and enter the workforce, he’s in a position of leadership for team known worldwide, and he’s already got four years’ experience under his belt.
He’s been through a lot and grown a lot since his draft day in 2009. It’s easy at times to consider him a veteran now, but he knows he still has more work to do to get where he wants and where he wants the Avalanche to be.
“I’m always trying to learn whatever I can,” he says. “I watch older guys and guys that have won in this league very closely to see what they do, and I try to pick up anything I can from those guys. Even if it’s the smallest little thing, you’re still getting better and you’re still improving. Those guys are awesome examples for a guy like me, who hopefully will be one of those guys on a team down the road.”
Where that road leads remains to be seen, but it clearly seems like Duchene is more than pleased with his current path.
“So excited to be part of the Avs future,” Duchene posted to Twitter the day he signed his extension. “Love this franchise, team and city, couldn’t be happier.”