In those final moments of preparation before every Ottawa Senators game, when the national anthems have ended and the puck is about to drop, Matt Duchene looks at his stick. He reads the block-lettered initials written on the butt end, scans the country music lyrics Sharpied down the shaft tape, studies the abbreviated Bible verse further below. He thinks about all these things and what they mean to him. Only then does Duchene feel fully ready to go. “It’s like I’m carrying everything in my life with me when I’m out there doing what I love,” he says.
Start at the top. The first set of initials is the most private, three black letters related to property that Duchene owns in his hometown of Haliburton, Ont., an inside reference that only friends and family would understand. Beneath that is B.D., which used to be B.G, to stand for “Be Great,” a phrase that Duchene borrowed from a novel about an undrafted running back trying to reach the NFL. Now it means Baby Duchene, because wife Ashley is pregnant with their first child, a boy. It is Matt’s plan to save a stick from this season and give it to him one day as a gift.
Duchene first began writing on his tape when he was playing for the OHL’s Brampton Battalion as a pre-draft teenager, but it didn’t become a full-time practice until his second pro season with the Avalanche in ‘10-11. Some past messages stemmed from sports psychology methods that Duchene had learned, shorthanded cues to help recenter his mind. But “most of them are just feel-good stuff that remind me of things that are important,” the 27-year-old center says. “That’s when I’m at my best, when I’m relaxed and letting things flow.”
Thus explains the country music references. Duchene was raised around the genre, singing by the campfire with his instrumentally inclined father, Vince. When he and Ashley first met, she put on a back-catalogue Brad Paisley song that Matt thought no one else knew; now their dog, a Brittany breed, is named Paisley. He admits that his guitar skills could use a tuneup—the Martin travel-sized model that he owns is still in storage in Denver, where he was drafted third overall in ‘09 and spent eight-plus seasons—but at least Duchene does not lack for performance gusto, having made cameos alongside Lee Brice, Thomas Rhett and, most recently, the James Parker Band at a bar near Canadian Tire Centre.
“Music and hockey go hand in hand,” Duchene says. “You’re in the performance business, the entertainment business. You’re bringing joy to people and making them happy. That’s something I’ve always had a craving for. I definitely get a rush off that.”
And so he writes down songs that speak to the soul. Rhett’s “Like It’s The Last Time” reminded Duchene of his friends back home. “That’s Damn Rock & Roll,” by Eric Church, pumped him up. This season, before he strung together the most productive first half of his 10-year career (16 goals, 24 assists through 35 games), Duchene decided to feature “Sinners Like Me,” another Church ballad that taps into both his deep religious faith and pending fatherhood. “When I read that before a game, it puts me in a really good mental state. It just lets me be free out there.”
Judging by his performance so far, Duchene has found an ideal rhythm with the Senators. “I think this season is the most relaxed I’ve ever been in my career,” he says. “I have no anxiety towards what’s going to happen.” By this, of course, Duchene is referring to the matter of his expiring contract; it’s why he and Ashley are still renting a house in Ottawa. Wedged in the Eastern Conference cellar, the Senators would easily find suitors for Duchene’s services at the trade deadline. Then again, as a recent TSN report anticipated, talks for an extension could just as easily begin soon.
“I just have the ultimate faith in myself that I’m going to end up where I’m supposed to be,” Duchene says. “I’ve had the results so far. But I’m not satisfied. That’s also exciting. Sometimes it keeps me up at night, just the hunger for more, trying to get even better.”
Why the strong start to ‘18-19? In a way, it is all about Duchene remembering to face the music. “I usually really struggle in preseason, because I get way too amped up,” he says. “I get to the rink, all fired up, get out on the ice, you’re playing against a team in a game that doesn’t matter with a whole bunch of guys who won’t be on their team during the season and no one’s in the stands. It’s a major letdown, and then it completely plays with your mind. I’ve done that my entire career for some reason. It just plays with your emotions.
“This year, I told myself I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t think about the game until I was out there. Seems to have been working. I had a good preseason and it just springboard me into the regular season. I’m a person who analyzes everything and really thinks and studies and does all that. If I overdo it, if I think about it too much, I’m over prepared, then you start to have too much on your mind. For me, it’s about taking things out and having a very relaxed approach.”
Which brings us back to the stick. The cycle begins anew each training camp, when Duchene receives a batch of six CCM twigs and cuts them to his desired length. Next he tapes half with his team’s primary home color (red in Ottawa) and half for the road (white). Then he grabs a permanent marker and starts to write: initials, lyrics and finally, at the bottom of the tape, "PHIL. 413"—“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me”—along with a cross. In those final moments of preparation before every Senators game, Duchene also privately recites the Lord’s prayer.
The sticks themselves are shipped at a 70 flex, but Duchene chops “a decent amount off” that lessens their whip to between 80 and 85, he estimates. For roughly four years Duchene used the same curve as Avalanche GM Joe Sakic, but reverted to an older model before this season, his first full campaign in Ottawa after a long-overdue Nov. ‘17 departure from Colorado. He compares stick selection to “an addition problem,” multiple components swirled to create a single end result. For Duchene, this is why choosing which words to write matters just as much as picking the proper length.
“Obviously, that’s the tool of my trade,” he says. “It just puts me in a really good spot mentally and it helps me play with all my emotions and gratefulness. I think that helps me perform at my best.”