Becoming the first Las Vegas Golden Knight of all time has been a surreal feeling for 21-year-old Reid Duke.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” said Duke in our telephone interview. “I haven’t really had a chance to sit back and take it all in.”
After inking an entry-level contract with the Golden Knights, it would be an understatement to say Duke is excited about the opportunity.
“(Signing with Vegas has been) everything that I could have ever dreamed (of),” Duke said. “I’m a part of something so much bigger.”
Earning the privilege of an NHL contract didn’t come easily to Duke. Heading into the 2016-17 season with the Brandon Wheat Kings as an overage veteran gave Duke a lot of motivation. It was his last year in junior hockey no matter what, and that likely meant it was his last real chance to give himself an opportunity at the NHL level.
Duke was originally a sixth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Wild back in 2014. After three years as Wild property, the team decided to go in a different direction and opted not to offer Duke a contract.
“Obviously (last summer) I was pretty devastated that I wasn’t going to be signed with Minnesota, the team that drafted me,” Duke said. “I’d like to think (I have a chip on my shoulder). I’ve had a lot of people to prove wrong, including the NHL team that drafted me. When you’re faced with (not being signed by an NHL team) the incentive is right there.”
To date, Duke has tallied 36 goals and 34 assists in 56 games this season. But Duke’s numbers alone aren’t the sole thing that defines him as a player.
It’s his work ethic that sets him apart.
“I’m a hard worker and I know that’s one of the things Vegas liked in my game .”
After playing his 16- and 17-year-old seasons of junior hockey with the Red Deer Rebels, Duke played one game for Red Deer in his 18-year-old season before being shipped off to Brandon to play out his final two years of junior hockey. Through that span, Duke has seen a large improvement in his offensive game and leadership skills. As one of the Wheat King’s older players, Duke was an integral figure on and off the ice during last year’s Wheat Kings WHL championship and subsequent Memorial Cup run.
Last year’s efforts along with a hot start to this year saw Vegas take an interest in Duke.
“I knew that (Vegas) had been watching me play in the last few weeks,” Duke said. “When conversations got a bit more serious, I knew something was going to happen. Thankfully they gave me this wonderful opportunity.
“Looking back at things now, I couldn’t have wanted things to go better. (signing with the Knights) is something that you can’t even dream of as a kid, it’s so incredible right now and I’m just really happy the way things have worked out.”
One of Duke’s biggest mentors is the Knights’ assistant GM, Kelly McCrimmon. McCrimmon coached Duke for two seasons before accepting his new title with the league’s newest team.
“(McCrimmon) has been such a huge part of my hockey career, to actually have the contract signed there with him, it was pretty special to share the moment with him.”
Duke describes himself as an offensively minded player that likes to pass the puck. Duke enjoys watching Washington Capitals centre Nicklas Backstrom, a player that has prolific passing ability along with a strong defensive game. “He’s an amazing passer, hard worker and he plays the game the right way,” said Duke. “Watching a player like that is easy to do and (someone) that I look to mould my game around.”
While Duke has an NHL contract with the Knights, his journey to the NHL still has a sense of uncertainty. As of now, the Knights AHL affiliation situation is yet to be sorted out and where Duke plays next season remains a mystery. In the early stages of the Knights franchise, their prospect cupboards will be relatively dry. Luckily for Duke, this could lead to NHL opportunities early on that Duke may not have received elsewhere.
“It’ll be exciting to see the way things unfold this summer.”