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Duchene the darkhorse behind Tavares and Hedman in NHL draft race

NHL top prospect Matt Duchene of the OHL's Brampton Battalion responds to questions during a luncheon Thursday, June 25, 2009 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

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NHL top prospect Matt Duchene of the OHL's Brampton Battalion responds to questions during a luncheon Thursday, June 25, 2009 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

MONTREAL - Maurice Richard retired 31 years before Matt Duchene was born but The Rocket was still an idol for the talented centre from Haliburton, Ont.

Duchene even wears No. 9 for the Brampton Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League in honour of the Montreal Canadiens legend whose statue sits outside the Bell Centre where the NHL draft will take place on Friday night.

"It's just what he represents," Duchene said Thursday as 12 of the players expected to be selected high in the draft attended a luncheon at a downtown hotel. "He was kind of a working class hero.

"He worked two jobs. He played for the love of the game. He represents passion, heart and he was more than just a hockey player. That's something I aspire to.

"For me, the most important thing is to give back, whether it's to kids, to charities or whatever. He gave back to Quebec and I have French-Canadian heritage."

The 18-year-old is the X-factor at the draft.

It is widely expected that London Knights centre John Tavares will be selected first overall by the New York Islanders, followed by Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Duchene to the Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Giants forward Evander Kane to the Atlanta Thrashers.

But some scouts have Duchene rated as the top player available and the Islanders have kept the identity of the player they plan to select a closely guarded secret, despite the clamour from Long Island fans for Tavares.

"My goal my whole life was to be mentioned as a No.1 guy and that's what I've been able to do," said Duchene. "Whether I go No. 1 is not too big of a concern. I'll be happy wherever I end up."

The Islanders brought Tavares, Hedman and Duchene to Long Island in recent weeks for deluxe visits, including meetings with past and present players for a team that has struggled to compete for much of the quarter century since their four straight Stanley Cup wins in the early 1980s.

Chances to draft first overall are rare and general manager Garth Snow and his staff understand that they can't get it wrong.

The six-foot, 185-pound Tavares, under the microscope through four years of junior hockey, led the OHL with 58 goals this season and broke Peter Lee's 33-year-old league record of 213 career goals.

The six-foot-six, 220-pound Hedman is a rangy, mobile defenceman often compared to Anaheim Ducks shutdown man Chris Pronger.

And the five-foot-11, 200-pound Duchene is a playmaker who had 79 points in 59 games this season as well as killing penalties and playing a strong defensive game.

Tavares is running out of ways to say he hasn't a clue whether his name will be called first.

"You don't know how things will happen, so I'm definitely nervous, but wherever I go I know I'll be in a great spot and I'm excited about the opportunity," the Oakville, Ont., skater said.

"There are a lot of great players in this draft, especially a player like Victor. It's very rare to see someone of his size and speed for a defenceman.

"Matt brings a lot to the table as well. And guys like Evander and Brayden (Schenn) are very good players as well. It's a great year for the draft and it's an honour to be at the top of the list for a lot of (scouts)."

It remains to be seen whether the Toronto Maple Leafs will make a deal to move up from the seventh draft position to try to get Schenn, a six-foot 198-pound forward for the Brandon Wheats Kings. The Leafs drafted his brother, defenceman Luke Schenn, fifth overall last season.

The Los Angeles Kings have the fifth pick, followed by Phoenix, Toronto, Dallas Ottawa and Edmonton.

Several scouts have said there are at least 10 top quality players available.

Others expected to go high include Schenn's Brandon linemate Scott Glennie, Swedish speedster Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, Spokane defenceman Jared Cowen, Drummondville defenceman Dmitry Kulikov and American centre Jordan Schroeder.

And some may be tempted by Ryan Ellis, the small but gifted point man for the Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires.

Duchene wouldn't mind going to Colorado, his favourite team when he was growing up. He has framed jerseys of Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy in the basement of the family home, which his grandfather got from his friend, former Avs coach Bob Hartley.

Duchene's is an old-time hockey story. He grew up in a small town skating on a backyard rink built by his father Vince and grew into a top NHL prospect.

"My mom and I tease my dad by calling him Walter because I know he used to do that for Wayne," said Duchene, referring to Gretzky's father, the backyard rink guru. "Although I'm not Wayne, he's as close to Walter as it gets.

"He's been huge in my development."

He still practices on the rink in the summer with his pals, although they have to wear mosquito nets over their heads to keep out the swarming insects in the lake country a couple of hours north of Toronto.

Duchene's uncle is Anaheim Ducks assistant coach Newell Brown, who won a Memorial Cup with the Cornwall Royals in 1980, and his grandfather, Newell Brown Sr., once had his life saved by Don Cherry.

He has already told the story on Hockey Night In Canada how his grandfather was about to do some work on his dairy farm near Cornwall, but went into the house instead to watch Cherry on television. While he was watching, the barn roof caved in under the weight of thick ice.

"It was right where he would have been standing," said Duchene.

Duchesne's best friend as a young child was Cody Hodgson, a big prospect for the Vancouver Canucks. Although Hodgson moved away from Haliburton while they were children, they were reunited on the Battalion and remain close.

His one regret, which was driven home when he arrived in Montreal for the draft, is that he doesn't speak French. He said his father gave up speaking it when his family moved to Ontario when he was a boy.

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