Gaetan Duchesne, one of the best checking forwards ever to wear a Capitals sweater, has died. Duchesne reportedly suffered cardiac arrest while he was working out today, Apr. 16. A veteran of more than 1,000 NHL games with Washington, Quebec, Minnesota, San Jose and Florida, Duchesne was 44 years old.
Just 10 days ago Duchesne was here in Washington for the team’s alumni game at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Duchesne and several of his former Capitals teammates got together for a weekend of reminiscing and camaraderie.
“It’s unreal,” says Craig Laughlin, the Caps’ television analyst and a longtime Duchesne teammate in Washington. “We were all talking about what great shape he was in when we were on the bench [at the alumni game].”
Duchesne was Washington’s eighth-round pick (152nd overall) in the 1981 Entry Draft. At the time he had played two seasons for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He arrived at Washington’s training camp in 1981 as a 19-year-old who spoke virtually no English and had virtually no chance of making the team.
But Duchesne was no stranger to the underdog role. He was chosen in the 12th round of the 1979 QMJHL Midget Draft and was passed over altogether in the 1980 NHL Draft. Duchesne was not part of a Washington’s travel squad that played a series of exhibition games in Sweden that fall, but he made the Caps roster as a teenager and stuck all season, playing on a line with Glen Currie and Bobby Gould.
Telling Duchesne he had made the Washington roster was a sublime pleasure for Gary Green, the Capitals’ head coach at the time.
“All he could say was, ‘Muda, fada,’ – he couldn’t wait to find a phone to call his parents,” said Green.
Right from the beginning, Duchesne won over coaches, teammates and staff.
“There’s just something about that kid that’s very special,” said Ellen Ward, the administrative assistant to the general manager at the time, in a magazine interview. “You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you can’t help but love him.”
Duchesne eagerly set about the business of learning English. He conducted his first media interview in November of his rookie season, alternating between his broken English and interpreter/teammate Jean Pronovost, his mentor during his early days in the league.
“I was surprised,” said Duchesne when asked how he felt about making the team. “I didn’t think I would have a chance to make [the team] when I went to camp. I thought I would just go back to juniors.
“But I made the team because I worked hard. There’s really no big difference between me and another eighth-round draft choice, but when I was drafted, I decided I would work very hard to make the team. In the draft, number is not important.”
Virtually all the media attention that fall fell upon Bobby Carpenter, the 18-year-old rookie who became the first-ever player to jump from U.S. high school hockey to the NHL. Duchesne quietly went about his business and quickly integrated himself into the NHL and the fabric and culture of the Capitals team.
“Gaetan’s making this team is a credit not only to our scouting staff, but also to Gaetan himself,” said Green. “He displayed a great deal of determination and perseverance. Getting picked in the eight round usually doesn’t even assure you of a spot in Hershey.
“But Gaetan is an excellent skater – that’s his main asset,” continued Green. “He’s also got a good head on his shoulders for the defensive part of the game. He’s got a lot to learn certainly, but he has tremendous skating ability, which will get anybody an awful long way in this league.”
Duchesne scored his first NHL goal into an empty net on Oct. 10, 1981, against Detroit in his second NHL game, but his teammates often ribbed him about an empty net missed later in his career.
“The two things that we laughed about at the alumni game was the time he had a breakaway on an empty net and his stick broke in half,” remembers Laughlin. “Bobby Gould and I were laughing about that, and remembering how hard we were laughing on the bench when it happened. It didn’t matter, because we had the game won. No one was around him and the stick just broke right in half. We also used to kid him about his Pepsi and his potato chips [diet].”
Duchesne played only one minor-league game during his entire career, and it was with the Hershey Bears in 1982-83. He scored a goal in that contest.
Duchesne was one of 11 children, and his older brother Yves was an on-ice official in the QMJHL. He spent six seasons with the Capitals, totaling 87 goals, 225 points and 251 PIM in 451 games. Duchesne was traded to Quebec along with Alan Haworth and Washington's first choice in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft in exchange for Clint Malarchuk and Dale Hunter on Jun. 13, 1987.
“I’ll always remember his skating style, how he would get so low and battle and compete,” says Laughlin. “I looked up to him, he was such a great leader, and he led by example. He was a consummate professional in everything he did. There was never anything that he ever did for the Caps or anywhere he played in hockey that wasn’t based on a team-first mentality. It didn’t matter if he was playing a lot or not playing a lot, everything he did was ‘team first.’ We’re going to miss him.”
“The Washington Capitals are terribly saddened to hear of Gaetan Duchesne’s passing,” says Capitals president Dick Patrick. “Gator was a wonderful person and a popular player among his teammates, the organization and our fans. From his role on our first playoff teams until just recently, when he joined us for an alumni game here in Washington, we will always have fond memories of Gator.”
The Capitals organization sends out its condolences to Duchesne’s family and his many friends and ex-teammates.