The 2017-2018 Ottawa Senators season will likely be remembered more for what happened off the ice than on it. After a 30th place finish in the NHL Overall Standings, perhaps it’s for the best that so much of the focus was placed on events away from the Canadian Tire Centre ice.
While the record wasn’t something to remember – there was a light at the end of the tunnel that grew brighter as the season went on. That light was Matt Duchene. Duchene quietly played at almost a point a game pace over the last half of the season – which had him in the top 20 in NHL scoring over that time frame. The acquisition of Duchene brought the Senators a legitimate #1 Centre (with all due respect to Kyle Turris and Derrick Brassard) for the first time since the days of Jason Spezza’s prime.
But Matt Duchene is more than just a #1 Centre. He has been an elite NHL forward for several seasons prior to coming to Ottawa. He earned the honour of being chosen to play on Canada’s teams that won Gold at the 2014 Olympics, the 2015 World Championships and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Look at the list of players who were left off these rosters and you will get an understanding of just how respected a talent Duchene is throughout the NHL. While his talent on the ice gives the Senators a dynamic offensive weapon heading into next season – it is personality off the ice that sets him apart from so many others around the league.
His charity work is well documented in his home of Haliburton where he returns each summer and, upon joining the Senators, he began working with different charitable initiatives around the city. His grandmother Eleanor Brown, one of his biggest fans, attested to her grandson’s character off the ice in an early interview; “He’s a good hockey player, but he’s a wonderful person. He’s a great grandson and he’s a very kind, caring young man. He cares a lot about children and people who are having hardships. He’s just a well-rounded, intelligent young man. And that’s not just grandma talk.”
Matt Duchene isn’t someone who just says the right things, he does the right things. For a team looking for a fresh start on and off the ice, there is no better person or player to right the ship and take this franchise back to where it belongs – to the NHL playoffs and back into the hearts of the fan base.
We caught up with Matt Duchene to talk about this past season in Ottawa, his musical talents, his dog Paisley and much more.
Leading up to the 2009 Entry Draft, you were one of the big 3 prospects that year, along with John Tavares and Victor Hedman. You were compared to Steve Yzerman by some scouts prior to the Draft. What was it like playing junior in your draft year with the hype and expectations being placed on you by the media? Did you find that having to worry about draft position added an extra layer of pressure?
It did early on for sure. I remember the first 5 games or so that year I was way too focused on it and obsessed with it. I’m the type of person that can get that way when I want something badly and you have to find a balance. Once I relaxed and took a step back, my game took off and things ended up working out.
You were drafted #3 overall by Colorado in 2009, and your first NHL goal was scored on October 17th, 2009 against the Red Wings and their Cup winning goalie, Chris Osgood. Your first goal came in your 8th NHL game. What did it feel like to get that first goal?
When you’re looking for your 1st NHL goal, 8 games feels like an eternity. I was so stressed I hadn’t scored yet and I had all but given up hope of getting it in that game when I took a pretty harmless shot and it found its way in. I just remember pure surprise and excitement, I wanted to jump out of my skin. As an Avs fan as a kid, scoring against the Wings at the Joe on Chris Osgood was about as fitting as it could have been for me.
Looking back now at your time in Colorado, what would you say is your favourite memory of playing for the Avalanche?
There are a few things for sure. Getting drafted there, my first goal, scoring in the shootout to clinch playoffs my first year, winning the division in 2014 and playing in the playoffs all stand out. Maybe above all though was having the chance to play on a line with Forsberg, be coached by Roy and have Sakic as a GM, those were my childhood heroes who I idolized, so getting to work with them was dreamlike and something I’ll always treasure.
You were acquired by the Senators on November 5th, which just happened to be right before the team took a trip for 2 games to Sweden against the Avalanche. Can you describe that trip for us? What was it like being the new guy on the team heading to Sweden, to play your old team for 2 games?
Everything that seems to happen to me in my life happens in the most dramatic, crazy way possible so I almost expected that the trade was going to go that way. It was all kinds of emotions…relief, stress, fear, excitement, all of those can describe what it was like. It was such a whirlwind and the most insane situation that it ever could have been. The one thing I will always remember is how good my new teammates were to me. They made me feel so comfortable and at home as soon as I stepped foot in the locker room.
Can you describe the adjustment period you experienced when you arrived here in Ottawa? What was it like moving here, did you know anyone on the team? Was there anyone (or a group of guys) that helped make things easier for you when you arrived in Ottawa?
I knew Brassard, Stone, Ryan, Anderson, Phaneuf, and Ceci from playing with them before so that group was somewhat familiar right away which really helped. I had also played for Guy Boucher before so there was familiarity there and Marc Crawford played Jr with my uncle so we had met a few times. The adjustment process off the ice was really easy but on the ice, it took a bit for me to adjust to the new systems and find chemistry with guys which is normal. The hardest part was that was right at the time our team went into an offensive slump and a losing streak so it was tough going right off the bat. Right around the new year I started to feel much more comfortable and that’s when things took off for me.
You have been on fire during the last half of the season, with 20 goals and 42 points during your last 42 games, making you one of the top scorers in the NHL during the second half. What would you say has contributed to your success as a Senator during the second half of the season? Was it just a matter of you getting comfortable, or is there anything you can point to that you feel has played a role in you putting up such great numbers in 2018?
I think my teammates and coaches, first and foremost, helped me to feel comfortable on and off the ice and once I settled in and could breathe, my production came around. I was playing well when I first arrived but the puck wouldn’t go in for myself or my linemates and it was extremely stressful. My coaches and teammates were patient with me, which meant a lot. I think the biggest thing that helped me though, was the adversity I went through in the calendar year of 2017. Everything with our team in Colorado struggling, to trade rumours, to me wanting a new start, to massive slumps and on and on, it made me stronger mentally to the point where the small hiccups I was going through early as a Sen felt much smaller. I wouldn’t have been able to dig myself out of the hole I was in had I not gone through what I did last year.
It has been written that your mom grew up in Cornwall and your grandparents still live there, did you get to spend a lot of time in the area growing up? If so, do you have any memories of Cornwall when you were growing up, any places you like to go to? How excited were your parents to hear that you were going to be playing for the Senators?
My grandparents’ farm is one of the most special places in the world for me, probably only second to my cottage on the lake back home. As a kid, every time we were going to the farm I was crazy excited. 6 generations of my mom’s side of the family have lived on that farm, their front door came over from Scotland when they immigrated. The tradition of that land and house is almost holy in our family, and you can feel it when we go there. Even my wife feels it, she loves it there. Safe to say everyone in my family was happy when I got traded so close to home.
Tell us a little about your love of dogs. Were you always a dog lover? What makes these animals so special to you and tell us about your Brittany Spaniel dog, what are some of your favourite things about your dog, Paisley?
I was not a dog person at all growing up. We had a cat because my dad was a little shy of dogs after having been attacked as a kid. My wife is the one who made me a dog lover. We got Paisley randomly one day, walking through the mall in Denver. Ash wanted to go in to the pet store and see the dogs. Reluctantly, I said ok so we went in and Paisley was in there. We took him out and hung out with him and I fell in love with him and couldn’t leave without taking him home. Ash and I weren’t even living together at the time so it was a big leap of faith in our relationship (laughs) 7 years later, my parents now have a 2 year old Brittany Spaniel puppy of their own because they fell in love with Paisley like I did. Our family loves how loyal, affectionate and smart they are. They have big personalities and love our property on the lake in Haliburton. Life is so much better with a dog.
You recently were married to your long-time girlfriend Ashley. How did you two meet and start dating? Was it love at first sight or did you have to work on her a bit before you could win her over?
We met through some mutual friends in Denver. I fell in love with her almost instantly. I always tease her that I loved her more than she loved me at the start. I am so blessed to have her in my life, she is such a beautiful person inside and out. I’m so lucky to have her as my wife, God has blessed me more than I could have imagined.
What would you say are some of the best things about your wife and what role she has played in your success in the NHL?
She takes care of so much at home so I can just focus on doing my job to the best of my ability. She’s a soft place to land when things are tough and she is beyond supportive of me and my big dreams. She’s balanced me out over the years and helped me improve on things I needed to as a person. I wouldn’t be who I am today on or off the ice without her. And she’s an unreal cook! (laughs)
How important has your family been? Any 6am practices mom or dad were there for, long drives to tournaments?
Not many early mornings, but lots of long drives and late nights. My AAA team was based out of Lindsay which was an hour and 15 minutes away from Haliburton. I remember getting home from practices at 1 am on a week night. My dad drove every time, hours and hours through snow storms if he had to to get me to where I needed to be. My mom and sister rode along to almost every one of my games. The sacrifices they made are why I’m at where I am and I am eternally grateful to the three of them for the commitment they made to helping me chase my dream.
Anyone who follows you on Instagram will quickly see what an avid outdoorsman and fisherman you are. What is the biggest fish you’ve ever caught?
Salt water, the biggest fish I’ve caught is a 35 lb Wahoo which I caught in Maui in 2012. I have a replica of it in my bar in my house in Denver. Fresh water, the biggest one was last summer, I caught a 9lb lake trout, which as lake trout go isn’t huge, but for my lake it is extremely rare. For me, I love the relaxation part of fishing but also the challenge. It’s you versus the fish and the rush you get when you hook into one and land it is one of the most exhilarating things in my life. I also love how beautiful it is being out on the water especially in Haliburton, there’s nothing like it.
Now that you’ve been in Ottawa for 4-5 months, do you have any favourite spots in the area that you like to visit or places you and your wife like to eat at?
We live in Westboro at the moment so we definitely have some favourite restaurants. Giovanni’s, Wellington Gastropub, Fratelli’s, Savoy, are a few we really love. We also take Paisley to the dog park on Island Park Drive a lot, he loves it there.
You are well known for being a big country fan and even got to sing Friends in Low Places on stage with Thomas Rhett in Colorado and you played guitar with Lee Brice during the NHL All-Star Game in Nashville. Can you describe these experiences? How long have you played the guitar?
I’ve had some really cool experiences with some of my favourite artists and that’s something I really treasure. They’re all such nice guys and it’s fun to keep in touch with them. Country music is something I was brought up on, it’s part of the foundation of my life along with God, my family, hockey and fishing. I grew up around it non stop, my Grandma Duchene plays the guitar, my Grandpa Duchene plays the fiddle and my dad plays guitar, bass and drums. My dad played in a band when I was very young and I loved going to see him play. I really got into playing guitar when I was about 14 and haven’t put it down since. I wanna keep getting better at it.
Who are some of your favourite artists, and what is the best concert you’ve ever been to live?
So hard to just name a few here but I’ll try! Eric Church, Thomas Rhett, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Cole Swindell, Jake Owen, Jon Pardi and Dallas Smith are probably my top ones. Eric Church puts on some unreal shows as does Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett. I’ve been lucky enough to get to know Thomas quite well and Dallas played a private show for our wedding party and guests the night before our wedding. Dallas’ vocals are insane, it was a really special night.
You have a pretty good set of pipes, do you ever see yourself starting a band when your playing days are over?
(Laughs) I would love to. Ash will probably want to kill me but I’d love to get a bit more serious with it. It’s an absolute thrill to get up and play and sing, I love it.
You are well known for all the charity work you do in your community. Why do you think it is important for you to give back to your community and are there any particular causes that are most important to you and your family?
God has blessed me with so much in my life and I believe that part of the responsibility of those gifts is to give back as much as you can. My community is so important to me that anything I can do in Haliburton to help I try and do. I’m excited to get more involved in Ottawa this coming season now that I’ve settled in. Childhood illness is something that is very close to mine and Ash’s heart so to see the relationship between CHEO and the Sens makes us really excited to get involved. What CHEO does for those kids and families is truly amazing and having only been in Ottawa a short while, I know that I’ve only seen just a bit of it so far.
Looking back now on your career to date, what accomplishment are you most proud of and why?
So hard to pick just one but I would say playing in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi is my number one. Just making Team Canada, with the talent we have in this country, was truly the greatest moment of my career. I’ll never forget that phone call. To win Gold on top of that took it even to a higher level. The whole thing was such an honour and I’m still so proud to have been a part of it.
What advice would you give to a young kid growing up who dreams of one day following in your footsteps and playing in the NHL?
If you love it, work as hard as you can at it because even with the pressure, the stress and the ups and downs, waking up as an NHL player and getting to play the greatest game on Earth for a living everyday is truly a gift and a privilege. I’m blessed to do what I love.