SUNRISE — Before signing with the Florida Panthers, Anthony Duclair admits the summer of 2020 was not his happiest of times.
Ottawa, the team he had just scored a career-high 23 goals for and represented at All-Star Weekend, had basically cut him loose.
By not offering the restricted free agent a qualifying contract, Duclair was a free agent at a time when teams were not exactly in the mood to spend a lot of money due to the pandemic.
”It was crazy,” Duclair said. “(Ottawa) was something I didn’t think would happen, not after the season I had. But, business is business. I kind of learned that over the years. I just kept the faith with my family who I have to mention again. I just kept the faith in myself and knew, someday, it was going to work out for me. There is more to life than this. But I am glad it worked out for sure.”
As we all know by now, things worked out famously both for Duclair — and for the Florida Panthers.
For his hard work on the ice and his work within the community, the Florida chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association has nominated Duclair for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.
The annual award is given “to the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.”
Duclair certainly fits the description of the award.
“He is a contagious guy and his teammates love him,” Florida coach Andrew Brunette said. “He is a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky guy but he has also been a very selfless guy for what he brings and what he stands for, what he believes in.
“He has brought awareness and is one of the spokesmen for multiple causes. On the ice, brings an element in where you can’t have too much of that speed. He has grown a lot, matured a lot as a player and as a person. I’m very happy for him.’’
Before coming to the Panthers, Duclair was a hockey vagabond, moving from one team to the next.
By the age of 25, Duclair had played for five organizations since debuting with the Rangers.
While in Columbus, Duclair got to know Bill Zito a little bit.
When Duclair became a free agent, one who worked as his own agent, he and Zito had numerous conversations.
Some were about hockey, some about life.
The two continued talks as free agency opened and Duclair had not found a place to play.
He ended up signing a one-year deal with Zito and the Panthers just before training camp. It was a prove-it contract for Duclair.
That one-year contract turned into a three-year extension.
”I finally found a home here,” Duclair said, “and I am super-excited and super-happy. Again, it took a lot of hard work.”
Last season, he scored 10 goals with 32 points in 43 games; this season, he has set a career-high in goals (31), assists (25) and points (70).
Most importantly, Duclair feels at home in Florida with the Panthers.
“I have to thank my family first-and-foremost because they have been win me since Day 1, through good and bad times,” Duclair said.
“This has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride to get to this point and the biggest thing I take away from it is the support from my family. They have been huge. At times, I didn’t know what was going to happen next in my life, for my career. For them to be with me the whole way through has been helpful and i can’t thank them enough.’’
Off the ice, Duclair is one of the founding members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance and was part of a powerful ad campaign underwritten by Budweiser trying to eradicate racism from the game.
“When you get more diversity in the game, it is only going to make the game better,” Duclair said in the spot.
”One of my goals was to come to a team that would accept me for who I am and believes in me,” Duclair said. “That was some of the conversations I had with Bill Zito that summer and Brett Peterson as well. This organization, I’ve never seen anything like it to be honest. The amount of support and love I have been getting since Day 1 has been unbelievable. To have these initiatives and have them back me up on those things has been great. I can‘t be more thankful.’’
Later, Duclair added that he hopes to be an inspiration to kids of color who look up to players like him.
“I’m not just playing for myself anymore,” he said. “There are kids watching, another generation looking up to me. Not too long ago, I was one of those kids, looking up to NHL players and hoping I would be in that position. I am in my eighth year and have grown into my own man. I just want to be the best role model I cam be on and off the ice. I just want to make sure I am there for anyone who needs help.”
Duclair’s work in the community will continue when the team moves its operations to a new facility in Fort Lauderdale.
The team has pledged to work to try and bring the game to more minority groups.
Duclair says he is very interested in helping out with.
“One hundred percent,” Duclair said. “I am definitely going to have some conversations with management as soon as this season is ends. I spend my summers here now, so I’ll definitely have some time to come by and support them in any way I can.”
Only one Florida player has won the award since the franchise started in 1993 — Jaromir Jagr in 2016.
George Richards is Chair of the Florida Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT BOSTON BRUINS
- When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: TD Garden, Boston
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, SiriusXM
- Season series — Tied 1-1: @Florida 4, Boston 1 (Oct. 27); @Boston 3, Florida 2 SO (Oct. 30)
- 2021 regular season series: Did not play
- All-time regular season series: Boston leads 57-35-6, 6 ties