CHICAGO — Rewind back to the final days of June and Matt Duchene had his young family on quite the road trip. They visited Montreal and Nashville, and had just come from Columbus at the end of last season.
They were in search of the next place to call home.
As much as it had seemed fated for years that Duchene would join the Predators — where he ultimately signed a $56-million, seven-year deal on July 1 — there was still some stress during the free-agent interview period.
This was an opportunity to tour facilities, speak with team officials and get a feel for the day-to-day lifestyle with boots on the ground. One last chance to scrutinize and prioritize before making a life-altering decision.
"I think it’s important, it allows you to compare close up," Duchene told Sportsnet. "You get a taste; it’s almost a sense, you get a feel of things. Both places had that for me.
"When I went in I could see myself wearing both uniforms."
So, before he ever pulled on a No. 95 sweater in eye-popping yellow at Bridgestone Arena, he had to first visualize what it might be like to wear the bleu, blanc et rouge.
There’s only so much detail Duchene can share publicly about what that experience was like, but he doesn’t shy away from the fact Montreal held serious appeal. The grandparents on his father’s side lived near the Quebec border in Northern Ontario while he was growing up and the entire family pulled for the Canadiens — at least until Patrick Roy was traded to Colorado in December 1995, and some allegiances strayed.
When Matt and his wife Ashley welcomed their son Beau in January, the first gift he bought him was a copy of Roch Carrier’s famous book "The Hockey Sweater."
And if those sentimental ties weren’t enough on their own, the Habs certainly gave him something to think about when he visited the city as well.
"French-Canadian background, and [GM Marc Bergevin] and [owner Geoff] Molson couldn’t have been better when we went to Montreal," Duchene said during the recent NHL/NHLPA player media tour. "There was definitely something to be said for the history and the tradition they have there. It was pretty cool just to even talk to them, go to that rink, have them [involved].
"It was very humbling."
Ultimately, Duchene chose Nashville over Montreal and Columbus.
He’s a known superfan of country music — the Predators gave him a guitar in addition to his sweater, when he was first introduced to the media there — but the main draw was a team the 28-year-old centre viewed as having some staying power.
Duchene traces his love affair with the city back to the 2016 all-star game and insists there was no grand plan at play during free agency. Yes, he already owned an investment property in Nashville, but that didn’t guarantee he’d wind up there.
"I never planned ever to end up in Nashville," he said. "It was one of those things where it was like, ‘If it happens, it would be amazing’ and I knew that there was common interests, for sure. And, yeah, there was rumours way back two years before I ended up getting traded [by the Avalanche] about me ending up there."
Another big thing working in Nashville’s favour was how comfortable he felt there. The laid-back lifestyle reminds him of how things were in Haliburton, Ont., when he was a kid.
"I know it’s the south, but I always tell people down there: Small-town Canada, it’s the same thing," said Duchene. "There’s obviously some little differences — maybe the accents are a little different, we say ‘eh’ they say ‘y’all,’ but it’s very, very similar."
He arrives at a good moment in his life.
Somewhat incredibly, the third overall pick from 2009 is coming off his most productive NHL season with 31 goals and 70 points in the 73 games he split between Ottawa and Columbus last season. That’s no small feat given the trade discussion and rumours that followed him in the early months of the regular season.
It’s also a far cry from how Duchene felt when he was dealt to the Senators from Colorado in November 2017 — a period he now looks back on as a down time. He says that former Ottawa coach Guy Boucher deserves a lot of credit for helping him dig out of it.
"I got there to Ottawa and I was fragile mentally," said Duchene. "I was playing really well at the start, but couldn’t produce anything and we were losing. I was stressed, I was whatever. I’ve known Guy for a long time and he believes in me and believed in me. As a coach he believed in me a lot. He just let me kind of [go]. He just kept putting me out there, he just kept saying good things, he kept supporting me. Where I expected maybe to be beaten down a little bit or whatever, he didn’t do that.
"Then all of a sudden it was like, ‘OK, I can just be me,’ and I went out and started to play that way."
Now, he hopes to take another step again.
Duchene believes there is still more in him to give and that played into the free-agent decision as well. He wanted to land with an organization where he could enjoy his best years.
"I’m a pretty decisive person, I’m pretty focused. I know kind of what I want," said Duchene. "There was kind of a few teams that my wife and I saw us going to and I think Nashville definitely was the front-runner. At the end of the day that’s what made the most sense for us and that’s where I think our hearts were.
"We just followed that."