Twists and Turns in Life

iinta exclusive with Ron Duguay: New York Rangers’ Star Athlete

The Beginnings

The saying “fifteen minutes of fame” is applicable to most people who hit the spotlight like a brilliant flash of light before flickering out like a sparkler at the end of the rod, leaving fans wondering: “what in the world happened to them?”

This would not be the case for NHL player, Ron Duguay. He earned his claim to fame over the years, which he attributes to hard work, dedication and the consistent push to do the best he can at whatever he decides to do.

Duguay was born and raised in the township of Valley East, Ontario (which was amalgamated into the Greater City of Sudbury in 2001).

The majority of Sudbury’s smaller community hubs have outdoor rinks accessible to their members.

Having grown up in the Carol Richard Park area of Valley East, he had easy access to an outdoor rink. Duguay recalls beginning to attempt skating around three years old, like many children in Northern Ontario, and by the age of four it kind of resembled the sport.

“You’re playing a little,” he chuckles. “Whatever looks like hockey.”

This is where he learned to skate and play hockey until his first appearance at an indoor arena as a pre-teen.

The Centennial Arena in Old Hanmer was opened in 1971, making it a new addition for hockey players in the area.

This is where Duguay first experienced life in an arena, and it stuck with him.

Each community was running their own team, Valley East included, which he describes as being closer to their version of an all-star team.

He distinctly remembers the team colours, noting that he still has the jacket at home, were purple and yellow.

“My dad was involved,” Duguay says, pulling the old memories forward. “He was my coach in bantam.”

The age groups for designated categories were changed in 2002-03 by the Canadian Hockey Association. Bantam today encompasses the ages 13-14, but prior to that it was 14-15 years old.

When Duguay was bantam age, he was playing Junior B Hockey, having skipped Midget and Junior, with the Valley East team. As such, he was playing against men who were about 19 years old. He remembers playing the Manitoulin Island league where they would beat the islanders by 16-18 goals and he would score 12 to 13 points.

“I knew I wanted to prove myself as good as the older guys,” he says, and attributes his dad to helping him make that happen.

Since Duguay was consistently receiving trophies, and witnessing multiple successes with the teams he played for, there was an inkling in him that he was a little better than most of the other players. He notes that when young players are drafted to play in the OHL, that’s when they know for sure that they are as good as everyone else, and that builds further confidence.

To exemplify his talent, Duguay was drafted to the Sudbury Wolves at only 16 years old. As another example of Northern Ontario talent, he mentions Dave Taylor, another hockey legend who was born in Levack, Ontario. The two initially played against each other in the NHL before playing as teammates with the LA Kings.

Duguay’s life continued to evolve and change as he became more engrossed in the sport as a teenager. In the middle of grade ten he stopped attending school altogether to pursue hockey.

At that point, he was so focused on hockey that he was almost never present in class. This led the principal of Hanmer High to approach Duguay’s younger brother and inform him that Duguay didn’t need to attend school anymore if he didn’t want to.

When their parents were informed of this, he says they understood due to their own experience. His parents had obtained a grade six level of education because they needed to begin working.

“So, I left school and started playing hockey as a job,” Duguay says. “Doing it full time. I would play, then train, then practice.”

He played with the Sudbury Wolves from 1973-77 before the NHL drafted him in 1977 to play with the New York Rangers. He was in the first round, 13th pick overall.

New York Rangers

In the vocals of Liza Minelli, “Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today, I want to be a part of it… New York, New York.” Is it ironic the song was recorded the same year Duguay was drafted to play in the Big Apple for the big leagues?

It was quite the change moving from the tiny, suburban mining town of Sudbury to the massive, sky-scraping city of New York. At that time, he says there were many sketchy, shady areas of the city where one had to “watch their backs.” What is now New York Time’s Square was a red-light district in those days. Furthermore, he says there was a great deal of mafia and police presence in Manhattan.

Despite the sections of the city that required caution and a wary eye there were still many exciting aspects for Duguay.

The entertainment lifestyle is a huge draw for people in New York, performers and non-performers alike.

This was also at the same time the world’s most famous, and exclusive, disco club was open—Studio 54.

Not only was Duguay playing with the New York Rangers, but his access to the club allowed him to meet many notable persons such as Farrah Fawcett, Cher, Andy Warhol and Steven Spielberg.

Warhol put Duguay on the cover of his magazine, Interview. Duguay says that once on the cover of Interview, you knew you “made it” regardless of profession.

Then while having dinner with Spielberg, they discussed Duguay’s acting abilities as Spielberg was inclined to offer him the lead role in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

While the role ultimately went to Harrison Ford, Duguay still found himself going from a noticeable player to a celebrity in his own right.

“I understood I wasn’t just playing hockey, but a form of entertaining and performing,” Duguay says. “I was a bit of a shy guy; I wasn’t the most outspoken.”

The move to New York helped him break out of that shyness, though he was cautious the first couple years out there. Duguay attributes his excellent upbringing, good parents and friends, in providing him a solid foundation to understand what trouble was and how to avoid it.

Thus, in his first year he stayed away from Manhattan and lived in Long Island where the practice rink was located. In his second year, he moved to West Chester before finally moving to Manhattan in his third year with the Rangers. He says it wasn’t until this stage of his life that he was comfortable and grown up enough to live in Manhattan itself, also noting the city shifted for the better every year.

His transition over the first few years was made easier by the support of his mentor, and now long-time friend, Phil Esposito. He is an NHL legend in the Hall of Fame and had already claimed two Stanley Cups by the time Duguay entered the major league.

Esposito, a Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, native was playing with the New York Rangers when Duguay was drafted. Esposito was the team’s Captain and he helped created a family-like atmosphere with the team.

Furthermore, Dave Farrish had been drafted the Rangers’ a year before Duguay. Since the two had played together with the Sudbury Wolves, Duguay already had a friend on the team, which made the shift easier for Duguay.

“The team itself was very much like a family atmosphere,” he says.

While he had an excellent time during this period, and brought out the best in him, he says it eventually came back to bite him since he became distracted and ended up being traded.

In 1983 he went from playing with the New York Rangers to joining the Detroit Red Wings until he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins from 1985-87.

He briefly returned to the Rangers for 1986-88 before moving on to the Los Angeles Kings in the 1987-89 seasons.

While Duguay never won the famed Stanley Cup, which places people in a different category—even separate from Hall of Famers—he did have a 40-goal season with the New York Rangers. Just before that season, he represented Canada in the Canada Cup in 1980.

“It’s who you are as a team,” he explains. “I think team records override the personal records with the Stanley Cup.”

Though Duguay says not winning the Stanley Cup brings up the question, if someone is such a good player, why didn’t your team win the cup? He says winning the Stanley Cup truly goes to the character of the player, leadership quality and “pulling guys with you.”

However, he says, “I experienced quite a bit other than the Stanley Cup.”

Over the span of Duguay’s career, he had the opportunity to play with and against a number of Hall of Fame and Stanley Cup winners, including Wayne Gretzky and previously mentioned Phil Esposito.

Duguay was also coached by Herb Brooks for two years; he was the head coach to the US Olympic hockey team that won gold in the 1980 game against the Soviet Union—a match which would come to be known as the Miracle on Ice.

Despite not winning a Stanley Cup in his career, one of his personal highlights is playing against the Montreal Canadiens at the playoffs with the New York Rangers in 1979 (when he was only 22 years old). The Rangers came very close to winning that season, but the Canadiens kept their Stanley Cup streak, beating the Rangers 4-1.

Duguay went to the playoffs seven times with the Rangers and 11 overall.

Leaving the NHL

Duguay retired from the NHL in 1989 but stayed involved with hockey in other ways.

In 2002 he joined the Jacksonville Barracudas in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League (ACHL). While he intended to be a player, Duguay was approached midway through the season and informed by team management that they were planning on firing the current coach, asking Duguay to take over.

He had less than two days to go from being a player to the team’s head coach, technically he began the next day. Duguay chuckles as he recalls setting the rules immediately, saying he can only imagine the comments from players after the meeting.

He whipped them into shape and coached the rest of the reason, where he witnessed some of the results he sought. But he says the most important aspect was the respect the players had for him, saying, “they wanted to play for me.”

At the end of the season Duguay was asked to continue coaching and he agreed on the terms that he could build his own team, which was granted. They won their championship his first full year of coaching, and he kept the position for another two seasons before calling it quits.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be a coach,” he says of his time as a player. “I got to experience that.”

As a player, you can get over a bad game after a few hours, but as a coach the pressure is on 24/7. To be a coach is to live it, constantly ask what needs to be done differently, and how to teach and improve your players. He also says winning as a coach feels much greater than as a player.

“You’re teaching,” Duguay says. “You’re trying to get every player a little better with every practice. You can pinpoint things… then you see the results when they’re on the ice. When you see it—your teachings on the ice—show up in a game, then you know you’ve made a difference.”

How About Today?

Duguay hadn’t developed a plan for retirement, since his focus had always been hockey, but he says he was simply meant for New York.

The fame he garnered in the city at the beginning of his career might have gotten him traded due to his distractedness, but it certainly came back to assist him later in life.

He was approached to work for the Madison Square Gardens Network as an analyst. He worked there from 2006-2018, and earned two Emmy’s during this time. Due to his shy nature, and lack of training in analytics, it took four years for Duguay to become truly comfortable in the position. However, he had a better idea of what to observe and discuss having now been a player and coach, saying, “that helped me be a better analyst.”

After, leaving MSG, he was approached by the New York Post in 2019 to host a hockey podcast.

This brought him to a full 360 degrees! The company’s page six gossip column that liked to talk about him, which Duguay feels somewhat influenced his trade in 1983, is now employing him. The podcast, Up in the Blue Seats, is actually the 12th most popular, just behind Don Cherry.

Because Duguay has a strong New York Rangers following, that is what the show predominantly covers.

However, it wasn’t just being a Rangers’ player, a hockey coach and an analyst that has continued to capture the public’s attention.

Duguay is still active on the ice participating in various charity games. In 2009-10, Duguay also competed on the hit tv show, Battle of the Blades. The show pairs professional figure skaters with professional hockey players. A competitor’s chosen charity receives money based on their rankings in the competition. Duguay made it through half of that season.

Pre-Covid, he was sometimes playing 75 games a year around the world at different events, including charity functions. Predominantly, these games would be played in Canada, Russia, Switzerland and the US.

“What’s got me to where I am today is a foundation of working as hard as I could at what I was doing. Now I’m reaping the benefits.”

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