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Calgary prospect becomes first-ever Vegas Golden Knight

By Jason Herring, August 30 2017 —

[dropcap style=”inverse”]A[/dropcap]t 21 and without a single game in the NHL under his belt, Reid Duke has already made history in the league.

On March 6, the Calgary-born winger signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Vegas Golden Knights, making him the first-ever player to sign with the expansion team.

Duke was the Knights’ only player for nearly two months, during which time the organization played up Duke’s singular position on social media. In one tweet, they posted a projection of the team’s lineup, featuring only Duke on the ice. Another showed a video of Duke preparing for a warmup game of soccer with the rest of the team before the camera pans to his side and shows an empty arena. “This is gonna be a lot more fun with teammates,” he quips.

For now, this is Reid Duke’s legacy. New teams rarely enter the league, and very few players ever have the blessing, or curse, of being their team’s first torchbearer. This is where Duke’s legacy could stay — as a footnote in hockey history, the answer to a tough question at a sports bar trivia night. But since his childhood, Duke has dreamed of making his mark in the NHL.

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[dropcap style=”inverse”]D[/dropcap]uke is a born and raised Calgarian who spent his junior years playing with the Trails West Hockey Association in the city’s southwest. He grew up a fan of the hometown Calgary Flames, living through the team’s 2004 run to the Stanley Cup Final, led by then-captain Jarome Iginla.

“As a kid, me and my brothers would play street hockey with our Flames jerseys on. I remember walking up and down our side road and cars would be going by, honking at us to get off the road,” Duke said. “Going to the Stanley Cup Finals, cheering for your hometown — it was exciting.”

LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 30: during a scrimmage on June 30, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

At 15, he was taken fifth-overall by the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the Western Hockey League Bantam Draft. He put up solid numbers with Lethbridge and the Brandon Wheat Kings, scoring 282 points in 342 games and going to the Memorial Cup with Brandon. The Minnesota Wild selected him in the sixth round of the 2014 NHL Draft, but the team never signed Duke to a contract and he became a free agent.

“After my 19-year-old season in Brandon, I learned that they weren’t going to sign me,” Duke said. “Eventually I ended up going back to junior, which was really good for me because Vegas had a lot of interest in me early and everything took off for me there. It was really a blessing in disguise, not playing with Minnesota, because in the end there was something so much better in store.”

Duke is projected to start the 2017–18 season with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League — Vegas’s minor-league affiliate — following a typical path for a young prospect. He is no longer eligible to play in the WHL due to his age.

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[dropcap style=”inverse”]B[/dropcap]ut playing hockey in Las Vegas is anything but typical. The city’s flashy lights and lavish culture are a far cry from Brandon and Lethbridge — not to mention traditional hockey markets like Montreal or Boston. But Duke hasn’t spent much time at the famous hotels and casinos of the Las Vegas Strip.

“It was nice to finally get a little accustomed to the city and I’m really looking forward to coming back,” Duke said. “We didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the Strip, and I was surprised by everything about 15 or 20 minutes outside of that. It really wasn’t what I expected and I’m happy to take it in for the first time.”

As the Knights’ first player, much of Duke’s first weeks with the franchise involved a heavy media spotlight — not only for the novelty of his position as the team’s only player, but also as an early ambassador of hockey in Las Vegas. For now, the Golden Knights will be the tourist town’s first and only major sports team. They’ll be joined by the Las Vegas Raiders of the National Football League, who are moving from Oakland as early as 2019.

“It was amazing how excited [fans] were,” Duke said. “It’s their first-ever professional franchise. It’s something that every city wants, and especially with it being hockey, you wouldn’t think that would be the first big sport in Nevada. It’s nice to bring something new to that city.”

Many have questioned the feasibility of an NHL franchise in Las Vegas, with everywhere from The Globe and Mail to the Calgary Sun casting doubt on the team’s economic prospects. Nate Silver, the statistics buff who runs FiveThirtyEight, wrote an article in June 2016 titled “Las Vegas is a Terrible Place for an NHL Team,” arguing that low support for previous minor league teams and a relatively small number of potential fans in the tourist-heavy market spells disaster for the new franchise.

But while Vegas has yet to host a game, they’re primed for business success. Before the team even had a name, they sold all 16,000 of their season tickets for the inaugural season.

Whether Las Vegas is a bonafide hockey market or not, one thing is certain — it’s hot as hell in the desert.

“It’s super hot. A lot of it is running from one air conditioning unit to the next,” Duke said with a laugh. “But we get to be in the rinks most of the day, so it’s not too bad.”

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[dropcap style=”inverse”]T[/dropcap]he NHL last expanded in 2000, when the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild joined the league. Their first players were Greg Gardner and Steve Aronson, respectively. Neither ever played in the NHL.

The competition for Duke to make the Golden Knights is even higher than those players faced. After a number of abysmal inaugural seasons by expansion teams, the NHL altered rules for the expansion draft to give the Knights a better chance to ice a competitive team in their first season. That draft resulted some high-quality players — notably cup-winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and goal-scoring winger James Neal — heading to Las Vegas.

Duke had a chance to spend time with some of those players, including Fleury and ex-Calgary Flames defenceman Deryk Engelland.

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“When I was there for the expansion draft last month, there were a few of us in town, so we were hanging out a bit for the weekend,” Duke said. “They’re great guys and they’re a blast, so I can’t wait to see those guys again soon.”

And if Duke has it his way, he’ll be seeing a lot of those NHL-level talents this season.

“I’d be lying to you if I just said my goal was to make [the Chicago Wolves],” he said. “I’m doing everything I can to give myself the best chance to put on a Golden Knights jersey this year. We’ll see how that goes — it’s easy to have lofty goals when you’re trying to make your dreams come true.”

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[dropcap style=”inverse”]C[/dropcap]urrently, when you search for Reid Duke on Wikipedia, the first result is the biography of a popular Magic: the Gathering player — Reid “the Bones” Duke. The  stick-weilding Duke’s page is parenthesized “ice hockey.”

“I saw he was getting a lot of traffic on social media [after I signed with the Vegas Golden Knights], with everyone messaging him and congratulating him,” the hockey-playing Duke recalls.

It’s another sign that Duke’s major league career is only just starting. He’ll take the next step on September 8, when the Vegas Golden Knights begin their training camp for the upcoming season. The Calgary kid will duke it out — pun intended — with other prospects for a spot on the Knights’ roster. You’ll likely be able to catch him playing in preseason games with the team in mid-September.

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