BROOKLYN, N.Y. – If ever there was a story that seemed destined to finish “And they lived happily ever after”, it was the union of Matt Duchene and the Colorado Avalanche.
As a boy growing up in remote Halliburton, Ontario, Duchene papered the walls of his room with posters of Avalanche heroes such as Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy and Peter Forsberg. He wore the team’s jersey everywhere he went. He stenciled the team’s logo in his grade-school workbooks. On June 26, 2009, Duchene got to live out his dream of one day wearing the Avalanche sweater for real. His smile after putting on an Avs baseball cap, on a stage in Montreal on draft night, was literally like that of a kid in a candy store.
On Sunday night, in the back parking lot of the Barclay’s Center, Duchene walked away from the Avalanche in a story that finished more Greek tragedy than Hollywood happy. Escorted by an official from the NHL, giving one last hug to Avs equipment manager Mark Miller, Duchene stepped into a black SUV to begin his new life as an Ottawa Senator.
While it was a sad end, the fact is the marriage between Duchene and the Avs had been over for a while. Last Christmas, Duchene and his agent, Pat Brisson, formally went to Sakic and asked for a trade. After about a million rumors that had him supposedly going everywhere from Montreal to San Jose to most everywhere in between, the Senators and Nashville Predators were the two teams who packaged enough assets together for Sakic to finally pull the trigger on the deal.
The Avs got four current NHL players/prospects, and three others to come in first-, second-, and third-round picks in next year’s draft. It was the franchise’s biggest blockbuster of a trade since the Quebec Nordiques landed Forsberg back in the early 1990s.
But in doing so, they closed the book on a story that started with so much promise. Duchene was supposed to bridge the gap between the Sakic-Forsberg glory years. In the end, the Avs never won even one playoff series with him.
“For the last year, probably, it’s been tough,” Duchene told BSN Denver after the trade. “At the same time, it’s a learning experience, it’s a growing experience. It’s part of the business.”
Nothing personal, just business. It was never supposed to be like that. This was supposed to be personal. But, starting early in the 2015-16 season, things started to become impersonal and frosty between him and the team. In Boston, while working for Bleacher Report, I asked Sakic to list the “untouchables” on the roster moving forward, after a slow start.
Sakic gave me two names: Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. That was it. After I published the story, a reporter from ESPN, Joe McDonald, asked Duchene about his name being possibly on the trade block. Duchene couldn’t have been more shocked, at least it didn’t seem like it. It was the first he’d heard about it, and he was genuinely startled and, increasingly as time went on, upset. Initially, he used the rumors as fuel to have a fine next few weeks and things seemed back to normal again.
But late in that ’15-16 season, the Avs were in the late stages of a blowout home loss to the St. Louis Blues when Duchene scored a meaningless goal. Yet, it was his 30th goal, and Duchene leaped into the air in celebration.
That prompted coach Roy to launch into an extraordinary public condemnation of Duchene’s actions.
“What is that????” Roy said, with derision.
A couple months later, Roy quit the team and questioned the leadership of the team’s young core out the door. Jared Bednar replaced him, and he and Duchene never seemed on the same page in the 2016-17 season, a disastrous, 48-point campaign.
Duchene thought for sure he would be traded at last season’s deadline, but Sakic felt he was being lowballed by teams such as Nashville, Columbus and, for a time, the Senators, and held on to him. Over the summer, especially at the draft, Duchene thought for sure he’d be traded again. But Sakic still didn’t like the offers enough to pull the trigger. Along the way, Sakic was counseled by assistant GM Chris MacFarland, who recounted his nearly year-long experience with the Columbus Blue Jackets as part of their trade of Rick Nash to the Rangers.
Don’t give in. Stay patient, MacFarland told him. Sakic listened, and kept waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
A shocked-to-still-be-here Duchene was forced to report to Avs training camp in September, only arriving in Denver the day before while the rest of the team had been practicing together and going out on golf outings together.
It was, as we all saw, an awkward situation to say the least. It seemed like Duchene was the spouse still living in the house until the divorce papers went through.
“He didn’t want to be a Colorado Avalanche anymore,” defenseman Erik Johnson told BSN Denver. “The fact that he didn’t want to be a play for the team anymore, I think guys in the room were kind of waiting for it (a trade) to happen too. We all want to win play for this team and win in Denver, and he wanted to go somewhere else. That’s his right, but now we have the group in the room that we’re all going to be pulling on the same rope, in the same direction.”
Duchene was pulled off the ice by the team at the same time teammate Blake Comeau left the game with a head injury, early in the first period. After the team came into the dressing following the period, Duchene had already showered and was waiting for instructions on travel arrangements, as his now-former teammates tried to regroup from a 2-0 deficit. There was no farewell speech by Duchene, no grand statement to the room.
Johnson said he exchanged a couple of words with Duchene, essentially wishing him luck, but that was about it. The Avs went 8-6-0 with Duchene, who contributed 10 points. It could have gone a lot worse, and in the end Duchene did earn some praise for maintaining a professional demeanor, even if both parties were miserable around each other most of the time.
“For a guy who didn’t want to be here, he showed up every day and worked hard and had a good attitude,” Johnson said. “But at the end of the day, we all want to play for the Colorado Avalanche and do great things here. And, he didn’t.”
Tyson Barrie was drafted by the Avs in the same year as Duchene. He acknowledged the relationship between Duchene and teammates grew somewhat strained after last Christmas.
“Obviously, it’s no secret that (a trade) was something he wanted,” Barrie said. “So, I think it’s probably good to put that behind us. We’re moving on. We wish him the best and it sounds like we got some good pieces coming back, so we’re excited to meet these new guys.”
Sakic told Duchene last Christmas that he would accommodate Duchene’s desire to leave, but gave no guarantees as to when. How this trade will ultimately be judged remains to be seen, of course, but the initial feeling around the league seems to be one in which people are stunned Sakic was able to get so many prospects and draft picks in return for one player who can be an unrestricted free agent after next season. Not even Wayne Gretzky returned as much in terms of players and picks, when Edmonton traded him (along with two other players) to Los Angeles in 1988.
Sakic almost went ahead with the trade before the game against the Islanders, but there was still one hangup to the deal: the contract of Kyle Turris, traded by Ottawa to Nashville. The Predators insisted on Turris signing an extension as part of the deal, and they got it, but not before the Avs-Islanders game started.
As a result, Duchene would play just shy of two more minutes (1:59) with the Avalanche. He was a minus-1, with no shots and one-for-one on faceoffs. It would finish as one more loss for the Avs with Duchene in their official lineup.
“A huge part of my heart and my life has been (in Denver),” Duchene said. “It’s very emotional to be saying goodbye to that. I kind of expected it to be the weirdest way possible. But it’s a business. I’ll have a good story for people one day.”
But in the end, not a happy one, for either side, to tell.