BOSTON – He’s played hard. He’s played well. He has begun to look a guy enjoying his job and his life again, with a Colorado Avalanche logo on his chest.
Do you believe in miracles? OK, settle down Al Michaels.
Things are still pretty awkward around Matt Duchene. After a seemingly happy conversation about the game he’d just played Monday, and the week he’d just had, with the Colorado Avalanche, I asked him, “Hey, do you believe in fairytale endings Matt?”
“What do you mean?” Duchene said, suddenly looking serious.
Well, about this whole thing, this once seemingly unsalvageable relationship between you and the Avs and…
“I’m not addressing that. I’m here to talk about the game, that’s it,” he said.
OK then. Moving right along…
Look, things are a long way from perfect still between Duchene and the Avs. Two years ago, in the same visitors’ locker room at TD Garden, Duchene was first confronted by media rumors that he might be on the trade block. He was shocked by them, angered by them, hurt by them. Now, he’s become hardened to them.
He reported to training camp on time with the Avalanche, but had all the joy of someone checking in with a parole officer. There was that team photo of him, looking like a guy getting a mug shot at a police station, that went viral. Hashtag #FreeDuchene suddenly became a thing on Twitter.
But the Matt Duchene I saw the last few days of the road trip looked like a guy who was, dare I say it, enjoying himself again. He still doesn’t like to make much eye contact with reporters like me, and you still get the sense he’s a guy not knowing what the next day might bring to his life. But I saw some laughter between him and a few teammates on the road. I saw a guy who seems to think this Avalanche team, for however long he might be on it, can win some games again. Winning, of course, salves a lot of pain.
And, poking around a bit on the subject at a couple of teammates’ locker stalls, the word I got goes something like this: They don’t know how long he’ll be around either, but for now, Duchene is earning renewed respect around the team for maintaining a professional attitude and playing hard.
I didn’t cover the team every day the last couple years, so I don’t know much about the internal dynamics of those locker rooms. But I was told by a couple of players who were there that the chemistry was just plain bad last year, understandable given it was a 48-point team. Beyond that, though, I’m told there were plenty of petty squabbles among players and a good deal of finger-pointing. There were cliques, they said, especially among the older and younger players.
There were few times, I was told, where any more three or four guys went to dinner on the road together. Most teams, especially in hockey, you’ll see eight to 12 guys, or more, go out together.
Now look, three games into a new season is way too early to judge a team’s chemistry. But I most definitely get the sense that this team gets along much better than the last couple. The oldest guy on the team (Carl Soderberg) is 31. There are a lot of really young, hungry guys who are starting their careers together. That’s how the great Avs teams of the past got started, with some brilliant tinkering around the edges later by Pierre Lacroix.
That’s what Joe Sakic is, finally, trying to do now. Young, fast and hungry – that’s all that Sakic cares about now.
Which brings the subject back to Duchene. Is it possible that these young kids, some with really strong talent, can make Duchene love playing the game again here? Is it possible that he might be just the right kind of leader on a team like this, a guy with eight years of experience, whose character and perseverance have been tested to the limit with all the career uncertainty he’s endured? Could all this have been a blessing in disguise for Duchene and the Avs, toward a reconciliation? Could the fairytale still come true?
Or, is he still just a pawn in Sakic’s ongoing chess game, who will be shipped out immediately when his market value brings what Sakic has wanted all along?
I think it’s a fascinating story that is still developing, and I have no idea right how it ends. And, I don’t know if Sakic knows either. I know Duchene doesn’t know.
But I do know one thing: This isn’t the Shakespearean tragedy it seemed just a few weeks ago. To quote the Old Bard himself: “Oft expectation fails, and most oft there where most it promises; and oft it hits where hope is coldest, and despair most fits.”