When center Matt Duchene signed a seven-year, $56 million contract with the Nashville Predators this summer, the rest of the league barely batted an eye. “Come on,” one prominent agent told me recently. “Everyone knew that was going to happen.”
Indeed, the 28-year-old Duchene — who has also played for the Avalanche, Senators and Blue Jackets — has been linked to the Predators for years. In a conversation with ESPN, Duchene addressed why there was so much speculation surrounding the move (country music! property records!) as well as reaction to the shots former coach John Tortorella took in the media. Duchene also opened up about how he’d like hockey players to be marketed and whether we’ll be comparing him to P.K. Subban for years to come.
ESPN: Many people in hockey — fans, media, other players, executives, hockey Reddit — speculated for some time that you would end up in Nashville. They mentioned your love for country music. A lot of people pointed out last year that you bought property in Nashville. Do you think the coverage was a bit overblown?
Matt Duchene: Yeah, I think so. I think the reason is because there were so many rumors. There were almost-trades that happened. There were things over the course of probably the last four years — a lot of almosts. I think people know my interests. They thought my interest in country music was the reason I was going to end up there.
ESPN: You’re not the only player who loves country music …
Duchene: Yeah, totally. But I’m probably the most passionate about it in the league. At the same time, that wasn’t part of our decision. The big thing about it was, it’s a great hockey team, it’s a great place for [me and my wife, Ashley] to live. It’s our style of community and city and a place we’d love to bring our little guy up [Matt and Ashley welcomed a son, Beau, in January].
So, yeah, it was speculated for a long time, and there was definitely some merit to that speculation. There was a mutual interest, for sure. But even when I bought a property out there, it wasn’t ever to live in. I mean, it’s a small townhouse for an investment kind of thing. Short-term rental type thing because it’s such a great market for that out there. My buddy lives next door. So that was the case with that. That place is going to come in handy right now when we move into our other place.
ESPN: Was it a little unnerving to see your property records online go so public?
Duchene: I was really upset about that because it looked like I had the whole thing planned out from day one. And that was never the case. When I went into camp last year with Ottawa, I was committed to playing there, and I thought there was a good chance I was going to stay there. We looked very hard at that. It was a tough decision to leave Ottawa. When I got to Columbus, same thing. We loved Columbus, and we looked at Columbus right up until the end. Once we got to the point where we got to choose, at that point, it was obvious where our hearts were. But throughout the rest of that, I was committed to the team I was playing for, for sure, one hundred percent.
ESPN: One a scale of 1-10, how anonymous do you think you can be in public — one being nobody recognizes you at all, 10 being you are swarmed the second you step outside?
Duchene: Depends where you are. I think you can be a zero, and I think you can be a 10.
ESPN: OK, so what about while you’re in the city you’re playing in at that time?
Duchene: Nashville, I’m not sure. Probably I would say pretty low. I think it’s pretty touristy around downtown. I know it’s touristy because I’ve been a tourist there many times. So I think you could fly under the radar there. There are other places where you wouldn’t, but I haven’t experienced it yet.
ESPN: Was Ottawa the 10 side of the scale?
Duchene: Ottawa was, yeah, it was up there for sure. Columbus was actually pretty [similar] — they love the team there. Their fan base is really sneaky, a pretty awesome fan base they have there.
ESPN: What did you learn about that market during the playoff run last season?
Duchene: I couldn’t believe how great a hockey city that Columbus was. I just didn’t know. You don’t hear about it. You don’t meet a lot of Columbus fans, like, walking around the street, but then in that city, my goodness. I never heard a rink be like that in my life. Game four [of the first round], when we put out Tampa, it was deafening. We were in the room after, and all of us were on such a high because we were like, “Wow, we accomplished something pretty amazing.” First time this franchise has been past the first round. The city was just starving for it. [That’s] something I’ll have with me my whole life and something I’ll look back on.
ESPN: Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella had some pretty strong comments recently to The Athletic. He talked about the free agents who left and basically said it made him angry to see you guys want to win elsewhere when Columbus has a great chance. What was your reaction to that?
Duchene: I didn’t take it personally. He and I texted throughout the summer, even after I signed [in Nashville]. I understand. Torts is a guy that is all for his players, and he wants to show to his guys that he’s in there with them still and feeling that way. It’s what he does. And that’s what makes him a good coach. I didn’t take any offense to it. I know where he’s coming from, and he’s a passionate guy.
Duchene (from left), goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin all left the Blue Jackets via free agency this summer. Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire
ESPN: How’s life with your first kid?
Duchene: It’s great. It’s amazing. Not as much sleep as I used to get, but I think I’m more energized by him. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, and he’s just the sweetest little guy. He’s smiley as heck and laughing all the time. I miss him when I’m gone. We were FaceTiming the other day, and he recognized me on the phone. He tried to grab the phone, and he was smiling. It just melts your heart.
ESPN: What’s the most Canadian saying?
Duchene: Anything with “eh” in it. Back home it’s like, “How are you there, eh?” That’s probably the one that everyone says the most.
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ESPN: When was the last time you Googled yourself?
Duchene: I don’t even remember.
ESPN: How about searched yourself on Twitter?
Duchene: A long time. Twitter and Instagram are just a black hole of negativity. I wish it was just not in existence, but it’s a powerful tool also. For me, I get to share great parts of my life with people and kind of let people get to know me as a person. But you can go down a bad road that way too. I know guys who have. People don’t realize how tough it is on your mental health as an athlete to have to deal with some of that stuff.
ESPN: What attributes do you think a modern NHL coach has to have?
Duchene: You want to command respect but do it in a respectful way. I don’t think there’s a place in our game, because we’re all grown men, and we’re all doing our best — well, most of the time we’re all doing our best or should be — and I don’t think disrespect is a good thing. I think the best coaches have a way of demanding from their players in a respectful way. I think empowerment, showing that belief in your team and that empowerment in your team. I’ve had times where I felt like I was playing against my coach more than I was playing against the other team. You’re never going to get out of your team what you can with that.
ESPN: I notice a lot of cultural differences between sports. In football, everyone wants to be called men. In hockey, it’s boys. Everyone calls each other boys. Why?
Duchene: It’s probably a Canadian thing. With the boys, let’s go, boys. I think it’s very suiting, too, because we’re all just big kids. Hockey makes you mature faster than anyone else because the situations you are in are unrealistic in this world. A hockey dressing room is one of the hardest places to learn how to fit in, to learn how to navigate. It took me a long, long time to refine that. I’m still working on it. But at the end of the day, we get to play a kids’ game for a living, and we’re all just a bunch of boys at heart.
ESPN: What’s one change to make the NHL better?
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Duchene: I think there’s room still to grow our game. Obviously in Canada you don’t need to grow it — it’s what it is. It’s the biggest thing in North America. There’s not a demographic that’s more passionate about a sport than Canadians are with hockey. In the U.S., you obviously have the big four, and we’re number four. Anybody who does get into hockey ends up loving it, and most of the time it becomes their No. 1 sport. The biggest thing is how do we get everyone to that sport?
It’s amazing how many Americans I meet who grew up with baseball, basketball, football as their main culture, and then they go to a hockey game, and they’re hooked. It’s fast, and it’s entertaining. Guys are warriors. There’s a ton of skill and finesse in it too. It’s a very well-rounded game — obviously, I’m biased. How do we get those people, that demographic into it more? It’s pretty cool to be going to a market like Nashville, where it’s a Southern market. That city has become a hockey town, and I’m excited to be part of it and to be part of that culture.
ESPN: Along the lines of promoting the sport, my belief is that hockey needs to do a better job promoting its athletes. I’m curious: Would you feel comfortable appearing in a national ad campaign, or would you feel, as a hockey player, that it would be too big of a distraction for your team and you wouldn’t want to put yourself out there?
Duchene: No, I’d be in 100 percent because I think it would be good for the game. I think you’re right. I think hockey players are marketed as hockey players, not as athletes, a lot of the time. And that’s where the other sports are different. There’s a lot of guys in other sports that are recognized as pro athletes, and everybody knows who they are. “Oh, yeah, that guy plays this.” That’s the second thing that comes to your mind. But we’re almost hockey players first, athletes second. If we could change that way of thinking, I think the game will grow.
ESPN: I just had a conversation with a player who said the NHL needs to be better about guys wearing not just suits. He suggested guys start wearing white sneakers with suits because that makes them more fashionable. I noticed when you walked in that you’re wearing some white sneakers right now.
Duchene: I definitely won’t be pulling these out my first few weeks or months or whatever in Nashville. But I think this is the way the style is going, with suits and the sneakers now. So I think you’ll start to see some guys start doing it throughout the league. It’s a good look! Everyone is doing it right now. You watch TV, all those reality shows, the hosts are all wearing suits and sneakers, and they look great. Obviously, that’s the style.
ESPN: Last thing. You were not traded for P.K. Subban. It wasn’t one for one. But everyone is going to compare you guys the next couple of years, with you signing this contract in Nashville [and him being traded to clear cap space for it]. Is that weird?
Duchene: See, I don’t get that sense. I don’t think that’s going to be a comparison. Because we weren’t traded [for each other]. We’re different positions. It’s hard to compare apples to oranges. We’re different people. There’s a lot of differences. I think that’s something that will be overlooked pretty quickly. Maybe it’s just fresh right now.
He’s a heckuva player, a big personality, obviously, a guy who has done an amazing job off the ice giving the league some personality. I don’t see that being a thing. That’s the last thing on my mind, to be honest with you.
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