Anthony Duclair found himself moved by a photo of a little boy holding a stuffed bear.
In the winger’s Twitter feed was Musa Siddiqui showing off his new bear dressed in hockey gear. The 6-year-old named it Duclair, Musa told his father, Imran, “because he’s brown and he plays hockey like me.”
After proudly showing his teammates in the Florida Panthers’ dressing room, Duclair invited the Siddiqui family to a game and gifted Musa and his older sister, Ayla, with a signed stick and puck. When Musa took part in Florida’s “learn to play” program in June, he met the Panthers’ real-life teddy bear. “Any story like that touches your heart,” Duclair said. “Hopefully it will touch a couple more minority kids and get them into hockey, sports, whatever they feel like doing.”
“(Musa has) always been drawn to Anthony because he’s a minority player. It blew his mind,” Imran Siddiqui said. “If it’s not hockey, it’s some other arena where he is going to be an unfamiliar face in the room. And the fact he has this community now, where he feels a little more welcome, it’s really awesome.”
The exact same might be said of Duclair. After struggling to fit in with five different teams in the first six seasons of his NHL career, Duclair has comfortably settled in Florida. In July 2021, he agreed to the longest contract since his entry-level pact, a three-year deal worth a total of $9 million.
Boasting elite puckhandling skills and speed, the native of Pointe-Claire, Que., has excelled regardless of where he slots into the Panthers’ lineup. The top-six forward’s ability to carry the puck while blowing past defenders for on-the-rush scoring chances has been a key component in one of the league’s best offenses. When a rush chance hasn’t produced one of the 28 goals he’s scored over past two seasons, Duclair’s teammates often capitalize on the rebounds.
Since Andrew Brunette took over as Florida’s interim coach in late October, Duclair has picked up minutes on the power play for his ability to settle the puck. With 18 goals and 34 points in 37 games, Duclair was on pace to surpass his personal bests of 23 goals and 44 points.
“With his speed, he’s going to help any line he plays on,” Brunette said. “It’s kind of merit-based. When you play at the level he’s playing at, he’s going to play on the top two lines and on the power play. If he’s not going quite as well, he brings different intangibles to each line. As a player, when you know you’re relied upon and needed, you usually perform better and feel better about yourself.”
The summer of 2020 sparked a change in Duclair’s personal and professional career. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and worldwide protests for racial equality that May, the 26-year-old signed on as an executive committee member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, an independent group with the goal of “eradicating racism and intolerance” in the sport.
Just months later, he was an unrestricted free agent after the Ottawa Senators declined to offer him a contract even though he was coming off a 23-goal campaign. Duclair fired his representation and took control of his negotiations. After two months on the free-agent market, he signed a one-year deal with Florida for $1.7 million – only a $50,000 bump from his previous contract.
The union of perennial underachievers proved a perfect match. Duclair has earned time alongside two of the game’s most prolific stars in Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, while emerging himself as a valued player in Florida’s success.
Once Duclair signed a longer-term deal in Florida, he decided to part with No. 91 in exchange for 10. When a few fans who pledged their fandom to ‘Duke’ reached out online to see if he’d do a jersey swap for the updated digits, Duclair came through.
His outreach in a market with a minority-majority population is having a positive impact, too. When the Hockey Diversity Alliance launched its “tape out hate” campaign, Duclair brought rolls of tape bearing the message “Racism has no place in hockey” to the Cats’ dressing room. He texted his teammates letting them know he’d be using it and invited them to join him. “Everyone jumped on board right away in supporting the cause,” said
Duclair to the media while wearing a “Vamos Gatos!” (Go Cats!) T-shirt. “I really appreciate that of the boys, from the bottom of my heart.”
“The role Anthony plays in the league, he embraces it,” Siddiqui said. “It would be easy for him to shy away from having to own the mantle of diversity and minorities in hockey, but he’s so great at it. He really owns it so well. We really admire him.”
It took some time to find a welcoming environment, but Duclair has discovered his comfort zone in Florida.