Monday, July 15, 2013

Part 18: Matt Duchene

Time was winding down in the second intermission of Game 6 of the Brampton Battalion’s 2008-09 Ontario Hockey League Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Belleville Bulls.

The Troops were trailing 3-2 after 40 minutes when Matt Duchene, who already had one goal in the game and had been in the penalty box when Nick Palmieri scored at 18:44 of the second overtime period to give the hometown Bulls a 3-2 win in Game 5 and send the series back to Brampton, had a premonition.

“I remember sitting in the room after the second,” Duchene, 22, said recently via telephone from Denver, where he’s in his fourth season with the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche. “We were down 3-2, and I missed a chance in overtime in Game 5 in Belleville when I couldn’t get the puck over Mike Murphy’s pad. If that goes in, the series is over. Then I got a cheap penalty in double overtime.

“I was sitting there and I could just feel like I was going to have an impact on this game. I looked up at the clock and told the guys I was going to get two in the third and we were going to win.”

Playing before a raucous crowd of 3,636 at the Powerade Centre, the Battalion tied the game on the power play at 2:03 of the third when Duchene hammered a shot from inside the blue line over a prone Murphy. Cody Hodgson made it 4-3 at 6:49, and Duchene struck for the eventual winning goal 37 seconds later, emerging from the corner to Murphy’s left, stepping around defender Shawn Lalonde and putting the puck into the top corner.

“The first shift of the third, I scored and, when I put the third one in, I thought, ‘We’re going to win and go to the final,’” said Duchene, who became the third Battalion player to score three goals in a playoff game.

“That game may be the number one for me in terms of emotion and personal and team performance. That third goal was probably the biggest goal I ever scored. That game is probably in the top five or 10 of games I’ve played. It was a lot of fun. That was a huge game for everybody. We all just came together. That was the pinnacle of Battalion hockey.”

The Troops moved on to face the Windsor Spitfires in the OHL Championship Series and were defeated in five games. Duchene’s junior career ended in the penalty box after he was sent off for checking hulking defenceman Harry Young from behind at 1:32 of overtime. Taylor Hall scored on the ensuing power play to give the hometown Spitfires a 2-1 victory.

“That’s still the worst call that has ever been made against me,” said Duchene, who led the Battalion with 14 goals in the playoffs and would be chosen third overall by Colorado in the NHL Entry Draft. “It was a little bump in overtime of the final. It was unbelievable.

“The Spitfires might have been a better team in terms of skill and depth, but we had loads of character and, if we’d been healthier and got a bounce here and there, we would have won that series. I still think about how great it would have been to play in a Memorial Cup. We were pretty banged up in the final, and I don’t know if we were able to play our best, but winning the Eastern Conference was an experience I’ll never forget.”

The fifth overall pick in the 2007 OHL Priority Selection, Duchene, a product of Haliburton, Ont., admitted the move to Brampton wasn’t easy.

“My neck of the woods is a little different from the big city. I had a lot of learning to do. It was a big transition for me, and I had a hard time adjusting. There were more people going to high school at Turner Fenton than there were in my home town. Coming in at 16 you’re playing against some amazing guys. The OHL is an unbelievable league, but I think I was able to make the transition quickly.

“Stan Butler gets a lot of credit for helping me. Without him, I don’t think I’d be where I am today.”

Duchene finished his rookie season with 30 goals and 20 assists for 50 points in 64 games. Much was expected of the Battalion in the playoffs after offensively gifted defenceman Bobby Sanguinetti was added in the previous offseason and left winger Cory Emmerton was acquired in a December trade with the Kingston Frontenacs. But the Battalion, which won the Central Division and was the conference’s second seed, stumbled in the playoffs, losing in five games to the Barrie Colts.

“There wasn’t a bad guy on that team, but there was a division there,” said Duchene. “There were some different groups, and I think that our character just wasn’t quite there and that’s probably why we weren’t able to figure it out that season.

“The next season, every guy was playing for every other guy. There were no cliques; we were all just one group. We had great leadership from our captain down to the guys who might not have played as much. Everybody worked hard every day. It was a special season. I can’t say enough about it. I loved that group of guys and would have gone through a wall for them.”

Duchene, a member of the Ontario team that won gold at the World Under-17 challenge, had a busy offseason. He joined Hodgson on the title-winning Canadian team at the World Under-18 Championship at Kazan, Russia, and he captained Canada to victory in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia in August.

Duchene entered his second OHL season as one of the most touted prospects in junior hockey. He scored 12 goals and added 21 assists for 32 points in 23 games but was sidelined for six games with a shoulder injury suffered in a 5-4 road win Nov. 21 over the Ottawa 67’s that was the penultimate game in a club-record 16-game winning streak.

Duchene scored in his return to the lineup, but the injury prevented him from earning a spot on the Canadian national junior team that featured Hodgson among its more prominent performers in a gold-medal showing at Ottawa.

“Getting cut from the world junior team still haunts me,” admitted Duchene, who, as a professional, has twice represented Canada at the World Championships and recently was part of a title-winning Canadian team at the Spengler Cup.

“It’s still one of the biggest disappointments of my career. I watch that tournament every Christmas and wish I had got a chance to play in it. I became so much stronger mentally and physically and became a better player by getting cut from that team. I wasn’t happy, and I used that anger and energy from being cut to help me.

“I believe hurdles are put in front of us at different parts of our lives or careers and the sting from falling on those hurdles will always be with us, but the lessons we learn from them will make us better.”

Duchene said he knew how good the Battalion could be during that winning streak and, when Butler made a number of substantial additions at the trade deadline, the players knew the organization believed in them.

Shortly after the deadline, the Battalion reeled off 12 straight wins.

“That first streak showed us how good we were and how good we could be. Stan did a really good job adding pieces at the trade deadline. That made a huge difference in allowing us to go as far as we did.

“Anthony Peluso was a great player for us. Matt Kang was incredibly talented. He was very skilled and a great depth guy who could score. Andrew Merrett and Josh Day were great players, too. When he made those moves, it showed that he believed in us.”

Duchene, who often centred a line with left winger Stephon Thorne and right winger Scott Tanski, finished the season with 31 goals and 48 assists for 79 points in 57 games.

“Tanski and Thorne are two of my favourite people and linemates. I played with Evgeny Grachev too, and he would be one of my favourite linemates ever. The chemistry we had was amazing. Stan split us up to balance out the scoring a bit, but Tanski and Thorne kept it going. They knew what they did well, and they did it every night. They knew their roles, and that made them great.”

On the way to the final, the Troops, who swept the Peterborough Petes in a conference quarterfinal, needed six games to oust the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors in the second round.

“Mississauga was a great hockey team, and that series was what we expected,” said Duchene. “It was low-scoring and tight-checking. Games against them were always a dogfight. We took care of business. Each of the series we won had its moments and some ups and downs, and it was so satisfying when we came out on top.

“You look at the talent that’s gone through the Battalion, and the results at the end of the season weren’t always what they should have been. The team wasn’t always able to get over the hump, and our team was able to do that. The fans in Brampton were craving for a team to go far, and they really came out for us. That season was one of the best of my life and some of the most fun I’ve ever had. That group of guys was great; we’ll walk together forever. I saw Tanski and Brad Albert in Ottawa over the summer, and we hung out for a few days and reminisced about those days. That’s what junior hockey is all about.”

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