A PLUS FOR THE KINGS : Steve Duchesne Masters English and NHL Foes

Times Staff Writer

In plain English--sweet, understandable English, the tongue that once held Steve Duchesne hostage in a hotel room in New Haven, Conn.--this is the kind of season it has been for the King defenseman:

Last week, Duchesne was voted to start for the Campbell Conference in the National Hockey League’s All-Star game, the first King defenseman to be picked since Terry Harper and Bob Murdoch 14 years ago.

He also has a shot at becoming the first King to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman.

With 54 points in his first 50 games, he trails only the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Paul Coffey, who has 65, in scoring among defensemen and has an outside chance of joining Coffey, Bobby Orr and Denis Potvin as the only defensemen to amass 100 points in a season. Duchesne, who has 16 goals, is almost certain to break Larry Murphy’s team record for most goals by a defenseman, 22.


His plus-minus rating of +30, which once was as high as +40, is second in the league and is among the highest ever for a team that traditionally finishes in the red when it comes to goals scored vs. goals against.

After taking the gamble of playing out his option this season, he figures to sign a fat multiyear contract. Duchesne, who is making $130,000 this season, is seeking a 4-year deal that would place him in the top echelon of defensemen.

And, in a ceremony earlier this winter, his jersey was retired by his Quebec junior team. It now hangs in the Marcel Dionne rink in Drummondville, hometown of the former King All-Star.

“I thought you had to be dead to have your number retired,” Duchesne said with a laugh the other day.

Dead, no. But it helps if you have resurrected a career that appeared to have dead-ended. Five years ago, Duchesne--who was the last player selected in his Quebec junior draft, in the 12th round--was passed over entirely in the NHL draft.

Even after Alex Smart--the same King scout who spotted Luc Robitaille--wrote to Duchesne and offered him a tryout with the Kings as a free agent, there was little reason to believe there would be life after New Haven for a terrified 20-year-old who didn’t know a word of English when he reported to the Kings’ farm team 3 years ago.

Duchesne is from Sept-Iles, Quebec, a mining town of 20,000 almost 9 hours north of Montreal, near the Labrador border. For all the contact he had had with the United States, Duchesne might as well have been on the other side of the Arctic Circle.

Until he went to the Kings’ training camp in Victoria, British Columbia, Duchesne had never ventured out of his home province. New Haven was his first taste of America, and although the culture shock may not have been as great as it was for, say, Robin Williams in “Moscow on the Hudson,” it was no fun being Sept-Iles on New Haven Harbor.

“In Sept-Iles, we had English courses in school, just as I’m sure here you have French,” he said. “But I didn’t want to learn that. I thought, ‘I’m never going to use it.’ ”

But then Duchesne found himself the only French-speaking player on the New Haven roster, staying alone in a Howard Johnson’s. Restaurants intimidated him. How to order food?

“I’d close my eyes and go like this,” said Duchesne, pointing at an imaginary menu.

“The easiest place to go was McDonald’s, because they’re everywhere. But you get to the point where you’re tired of McDonald’s. Burgers, always the same thing.”

For the most part, teammates were unsympathetic.

“I was the only French guy there, and when you’re the only one, you think people are talking about you,” he said. “You listen to guys in the locker room and you think they’re talking about you, and you get paranoid.

“There’s always a smart guy laughing at you, and everybody’s laughing at you. They think it’s funny, but to you it’s not. . . . It got to a point where I almost got into fights sometimes.”

It also got to the point where Duchesne was losing weight, drastically. His weight fell from 190 to 173 in a month, and he wound up in a hospital.

Eventually, however, Duchesne found an ally in Robbie Ftorek, the current King coach who was coaching in New Haven at the time. As a player, Ftorek had lived Duchesne’s experience in reverse: While with the Quebec Nordiques, he was the only English-speaking player in a dressing room of Frenchmen. Eventually, the Nordiques elected Ftorek captain, the only American-born captain in the team’s history.

Ftorek knew some French, but instead of letting Duchesne use him as a crutch, he helped arrange for an English tutor for Duchesne. Before practice each day, Duchesne would be at the rink by 7:30 each morning and take a class for almost 90 minutes before putting on his skates.

“I wanted to learn,” he said. “I like to talk, and I was embarrassed to talk. But I had a great teacher.”

Within a couple of months, Duchesne said, he was starting to feel comfortable in his new language. By last season, his second in Los Angeles, Duchesne was taking a correspondence course in sports medicine from Cal State Northridge. This year, he and a few teammates are enrolled in a business course.

The tough part of the transition to Los Angeles, where Duchesne arrived as a rookie in 198 6 after scoring 49 points in 75 games in New Haven, wasn’t the language--for one thing, he had Dionne and Robitaille as French-speaking comrades. It was the losing.

“The team had a big attitude problem,” he said. “When you’re used to losing all the time, it builds up in your mind. You don’t mind losing. We had too many guys who had been here too long. It was a big problem.”

He saw the debilitating effect the losing had on Dionne, hockey’s Ernie Banks, who arranged for Duchesne to live with family friends upon his arrival here.

“A lot of (players) hated Marcel because he’d get up in the dressing room and yell at people,” Duchesne said. “The guy wanted to win so bad.

“After a while, Marcel wasn’t talking anymore. We were wondering why, and he said he was getting sick of it, it had been so many years.”

Soon, Dionne was gone, traded to the New York Rangers, but it took another trade--the blockbuster that netted Wayne Gretzky--to effect an attitude adjustment. And although the Kings have been struggling lately--having won only 3 of their last 13 games--the outlook remains positive, Duchesne said.

“Wayne has made such a difference, both on and off the ice,” Duchesne said. “He gives us so much confidence.”

Gretzky also gave Duchesne some advice that has enabled an already potent offensive defenseman to become even more dangerous.

“I used to run around a lot for nothing,” Duchesne said. “But after a couple of games at the beginning of the year, Wayne said, ‘Kid, take your time. Don’t rush too fast. Wait till I turn around, then I’ll give you the puck and you can shoot.’

“It’s made a big difference. I’ve been making fewer stupid mistakes than the first couple of years.”

The result? Duchesne, who has been overlooked his entire life, finally has gotten recognition. The stunning aspect of his selection to the All-Star team, he said, was that he was chosen in voting by the fans.

“That means the people in the stands know who Steve Duchesne is,” he said, sounding as if he still didn’t quite believe it.

“It’s tough to explain, but I’m so happy,” he said. “It’s like a dream come true.”

And for that, Duchesne didn’t have to stretch his vocabulary. One word said it all.