By Larry Wigge
People always talk about speed and acceleration. But for me, Matt Duchene is a working-man's player with skill.
There is a distinction.
It's like a wide receiver getting open ... and then making a play or a touchdown.
On January 6, the 5-11, 200-pound forward from Haliburton, Ontario, completed a two-on-one break down right wing with center Nathan MacKinnon for Duchene's 19th goal, when his whizzed one in off St. Louis goalie's glove. It's was the Colorado Avalance's 41st game of the season -- a pace that will soon put him passed his career-high 27 goals as a sophomore in 2010 season.
The Avs held off the Blues for a 4-3 victory.
For Duchene, scoring only one goal in the first 11 games, galvanized his struggles early on. In November, he scored 11 goals to surpass Claude Lemieux's franchise record for goals in that month.
The slump bothered the 24-year-old forward -- along with trade rumors.
"Patrick (Coach Patrick Roy) pulled me aside and we watched video," Duchene said. "He's very perceptive in terms of the visual sense ... and he helped me return to that foundation to what makes me go and what makes me, me.
"Obviously, things completely flip-flopped. That's the coldest start I've ever had."
There have been many heart-pumping races for the puck that turned into a battle along the boards for Duchene in a career that began with 24, 27, 14, 17, 23 and 21 goals. Only John Tavares was picked by the New York Islanders and Victor Hedman by the Tampa Bay Lightning ahead of Duchene, who was selected third overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
So you see, Duchene has earned that esteemed position in the draft.
Duchene's hockey IQ is up in the top percentile, and there are no questions of his character and will. That's all a part of the family values he picked up from dad, Vince, a real estate agent in Haliburton, and mom, Chris, who is a guidance counselor at the local high school.
His inside-the-game influence is Newell Brown, an uncle who played center for Michigan State and was drafted by Vancouver in the eighth round in 1982. He has been an assistant coach Chicago, Anaheim, Columbus, Vancouver and is currently with the Arizona Coyotes.
"It's funny the kind of flashbacks you get as you're learning about life in the NHL," laughed Duchene. "I owe a lot to my uncle Newell for helping me learn about some of the inside things I'd be facing in my young career -- tips the average player couldn't get.
"Back when I was just 8 or 9, I went to Maple Leaf Gardens with my dad to see the Ducks play. Afterward, we go down to the locker room and my uncle introduces me to Paul Kariya. And I'll never forget, my dad asks Paul if it would be OK to get a photo of the two of us. A couple of nights later, we were in Buffalo and saw the Ducks play again. Paul got a couple of goals that night and I quickly became a fan of his. In fact, I've still got that photo on the wall at home."
No luck involved, Matt. And while you're at it don't forget that autographed Joe Sakic Avs sweater you have in your basement at home.
"The way he sees the ice, that's a vision that you can't teach, it's just instinctive -- and Matt has it," said captain Gabriel Landeskog.
There's a little something special about this kid apart from the acceleration he has that can quickly turn an innocent looking breakout into a dangerous odd-man rush. He's obviously passionate about the game. He's intuitive beyond his teen-aged years. And his instincts in doing the little things show that he has learned more than a few lessons from his uncle through the years. One thing you don't teach a kid like Matt is that God-given speed and an ability to separate from a defender. Much like Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, Duchene can change gears so quickly defensemen have trouble adapting and end up hauling him down.
Duchene's rookie season, he watched as they hung Joe Sakic's No. 19 in the rafters at Pepsi Center.
"I keep looking down at the logo on my chest and say to myself, 'Are you kidding me?' " Duchene laughed. "I used to draw their logo every day in school. And now, here I am."
Duchene has those same workmanlike qualities as Sakic.
"I think NHL teams are looking for winners," Duchene said. "It doesn't always have to be about big offensive numbers or big goals. It can be about faceoffs, defensive coverage, blocking shots or taking hits.
"When I'm on the ice, all I care about is winning."
After his rookie season, Duchene went on a non-gluten diet and got quicker -- losing 10 pounds.
"Getting leaner was a step I needed to take, but I couldn't figure out why I was having a hard time doing it. And what we figured out was my body has a really high intolerance to wheat and gluten," Duchene said. "You learn in school from the food guys that you're supposed to have a certain serving every day of wheat and grains, and it's not true. You shouldn't eat what's not great for you.
"I just feel like I have energy all the time now. It used to be a roll of the dice whether I'd feel good in a game or not, and there were some games I didn't play the way I could because I just didn't feel good. During a season, I used to lose some weight -- and think I had to pound the food down. So that meant a lot of bread and pasta and things like that."
He had enlisted the services of Andy O'Brien, a fitness trainer whose clients include Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
O'Brien, based in Calgary, Alberta, emphasized workouts for hockey players that strengthen core muscles in the abdomen, back and hips, and in ways that better connect those muscles to the rest of the body.
On the advice of Crosby, Duchene shortened the length of his stick by 2 inches. Because his legs and hips are more flexible, he can skate lower to the ice. The shorter stick has helped his passing and puck handling.
Using the inside-the-game aids once again worked out for Duchene.
To show Matt Duchene's sense of humor ...
We talk about bloodlines. Newell Brown's grandfather Newell Brown Sr. claims to have once had his life saved by Don Cherry.
"For years, he's run a dairy farm near Cornwall, Ontario," Matt recalled. "One night, he skipped doing a little extra work in the barn so that he could go into the house to watch Don Cherry's Grapevine on Hockey Night in Canada. While he was watching the TV, the roof of the barn caved in under the weight of thick ice.
"It caved in right where he would have been standing."
Duchene claims the story is the truth.