Drew Doughty would have been just fine without any extra attention this week.
Without being asked over and over and over again about his long-standing feud with Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk. Without seeing his face beaming back at him when he turned on his hotel TV. Without getting booed every time he touched the puck Tuesday night.
But that was never likely to happen during the Kings’ trip to Calgary. The defenseman is too good a quote, too charismatic a character, and embroiled in too rich a personal battle with Tkachuk to have flown under the radar. So rather than hiding from the spotlight, he harnessed the hype. After stirring the pot, he remained emotionally steady. And 50 seconds into overtime Tuesday night, he scored a game-winning goal to lift the Kings to their first win of the season.
“I feel like the media gives him a perception, but I don’t think anybody would trade that guy for anybody in the league to have on their team,” Kings’ goalie Jack Campbell said. “He’s just the ultimate competitor. What a leader he is.”
In a sport that often spits out stock answers, Doughty is a rare breed. He’s brash, yet beloved by his teammates. He can sound outspoken without acting overzealous. Pushing the envelope has become his specialty. Yet, he rarely crosses the line.
“Drew’s a colorful guy,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said. “The star players in the league now, they’re personalities, they’re entities, if you will. Drew is that.”
Doughty knew what to expect Monday afternoon when reporters swarmed his locker after the Kings’ practice in Calgary. His contentious past with Tkachuk — a saga that began two years ago, when the Flames forward hit him with a high elbow, and has continued through a heated exchange of words both on the ice and in the press — remains a provocative storyline, especially north of the border.
After several minutes of downplaying the duel, he finally gave in to the repeated line of questioning.
“I think we both know who the better player is,” Doughty said, dousing the melodrama with gasoline once again. “So if he wants to compliment me first, I’ll give him one back.”
Thus set the stage for Tuesday’s theatrics. In the hours before the game, Doughty said he had to turn off his TV and ignore his phone as his renewed rivalry with Tkachuk made its rounds through the media.
“I’m like, just, this is enough,” he said. “I’m just sick of it.”
At the rink, he was heckled almost every time he touched the puck, and repeatedly bumped by Tkachuk well after it was already off his stick.
“He’s going to run me, that’s his job,” Doughty said. “He’s going to hit me as many times per game. I’m just going to not talk back and just let it be.”
Late in the third period, Tkachuk whacked a game-tying goal out of the air, erasing a Kings’ lead once as large as three. Doughty responded minutes later, delivering a sudden-death dagger with a one-timer that deflected off the stick of a Flames penalty killer and into the net, and bidding the Calgary crowd farewell by banging on the glass and shouting at the stands.
“I don’t even know what I did,” he said. “I just started yelling at the crowd because they were booing me all the time.”
Then, back at his locker, he tried to put the Tkachuk tension to rest once and for all. Though he doesn’t care if he makes headlines, he doesn’t crave them either.
“That’s over,” Doughty said. “We both thrive under emotional games.”
This latest high-wire act epitomized what makes Doughty unique. Given all the pregame antics, his game on Tuesday could have easily gone awry. Instead, he provided an early jolt to a team coming off a second-to-last-place finish last season.
This is what McLellan hoped to see from the former Norris Trophy winner and five-time All-Star. Back in the preseason, the new Kings’ coach said managing Doughty was unnecessary. He trusted the defenseman to not put himself in a bad spot. On Tuesday night, McLellan reiterated that stance. To some extent, he enjoyed the Doughty-Tkachuk tussle. He liked even more that Doughty got the last laugh.
“We want him to be respectful of the Kings, of his teammates and of our community, and certainly the league as well, and he’s been that every time he talks,” McLellan said. “He speaks from the heart. But he goes out and he backs it up.”