Duthie: Boyhood pals Duchene and Hodgson now a world apart

James Duthie
10/23/2009 12:43:12 AM
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You'd be hard-pressed to find two better young men than Matt Duchene and Cody Hodgson.  They are like genetic lab-creations of what Canada wants its hockey players to be: ridiculously talented, passionate, hard-working, team-first guys.  And for the Hockey Moms out there, they are also polite, modest, well-spoken, and I can pretty much guarantee they'll have your daughter home on time.

You'd also be hard-pressed to find two hockey lives so intertwined.  Two careers, twinned since Tyke.

Until now, that is. 

Over the last month, their parallel paths took hard turns in different directions.  One is skating on clouds, playing big minutes on the NHL's surprise team.  The other is at home, off skates until a doctor says otherwise, thinking next year can't come soon enough.

First, the back-story. 

Duchene and Hodgson both grew up in the small town of Haliburton, Ontario.  There was only one Tyke rep team there, so both were on it with six year-old Cody at centre and five year-old Matt on his wing; the weak-ankled beginnings of a lifelong friendship, built on a shared dream.

''We talked about it all the time playing mini-sticks as kids, going to the NHL some day,'' says Hodgson. ''But I guess you never really believe it would happen to both of us.''

Hodgson would move south to Markham after those Tyke years, but the two would play against each other all winter, then team up again in the summer on a travelling team coached by Duchene's father.  The team was called 'Kids Love Hockey', after the sponsor.  Appropriate name.

''Those were great times,'' Hodgson says.  ''We had a ton of fun.'' 

''We won just about everything,'' adds Duchene.  ''It was awesome.''

Hodgson was drafted by the OHL's Brampton Battalion in 2006.  Sure enough, Brampton also called Duchene's name one year later. 

Through junior, they were teammates in the winter, and training partners in the summer - two kids/one obsession/365 days a year.

''We still have our cottage near Haliburton so I'd ride my bike down in the summer, work out, and then shoot pucks at Matt's place,'' says Hodgson.  ''He has a great set-up; a goalie he built in shop class that has all the same holes a goalie in the butterfly has.  It was amazing.''

Duchene even had special headgear - mosquito nets to fight off those pesky cottage-country predators. 

Those endless summer days fighting bugs and firing pucks paid off big-time.  Hodgson was drafted 10th overall by Vancouver in 2008.  Duchene went 3rd overall to Colorado one June later.

The perfect ending would have been for both to make their NHL teams this season; live the dream together.  It was Hodgson, most believed, who had the best shot to stick.  He already had one pro camp under his belt, and had been sensational at the World Juniors.  Duchene was still just a pup at 18.

But that's when things went askew. 

Hodgson hurt his back training in the summer.  At camp, he was diagnosed with a herniated disc, but cleared to play.  Yet he never felt right.  All the power seemed to have bled from his legs. 

The Canucks sent him back to Brampton.  He was crushed.

A second opinion from The Cleveland Clinic confirmed the herniated disk.  But doctors there recommended he stay off skates indefinitely.

Then it got worse.  Canucks coach Alain Vigneault inferred Hodgson was using the injury as an excuse for a poor camp, trying to ''roll the (blame) in a different direction.''

It was an odd thing to say about your franchise's #1 prospect. Some twisted motivational technique, perhaps.

The words stung the kid.  But he refuses to fire back - saying something negative about the organization that drafted him is not in Hodgson's DNA. 

''The Canucks medical staff has been very supportive of everything I've done,'' he says.  Besides that, he'd rather not talk about it.

Meanwhile, it was a fall fantasy for Matt Duchene.  Joe Sakic had retired, and the Avs were rebuilding.  There were jobs to be had.  He had a great camp, made the team, and quickly left little doubt he would be staying beyond every junior player's magic number of ten games. 

''I'm just ecstatic about everything,'' Duchene says.  ''I'm living the dream.  I remember my second pre-season game against St. Louis, I was taking the face-off against Keith Tkachuk, and Paul Kariya was on his wing.  I have a picture of me with Paul Kariya when I was eight years old at Maple Leaf Gardens.  I treasured that growing up.  Now I look over and he's on the wing against me.  Unreal.''

And as if he needed more to be pumped about, his team leads the Western Conference. 

So here we are.  The boyhood pals from Haliburton, whose careers had matched each other stride for stride, are suddenly in very different places.  Literally, and emotionally.

''I know it's been really tough on Cody,'' says Duchene.  ''I gave him his space for a while when he was sent back.  But he texted me after we beat Vancouver, and after I scored my first goal, just to say congrats.  He's such a character guy, he'll be fine.''

Hodgson is getting a little closer to 'fine' every day.  His back is finally starting to feel right again.  He hopes to be cleared to skate next week.  And the fact his old Tyke winger is 'living the dream' without him is anything but a downer.

''I'm thrilled to see Matt doing so well.  In fact, watching him and JT (John Tavares) and Del Zotto all have success, it energizes me. Because I played with those guys, so when they do well up there, I know I can, too.''

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