Friday, June 29, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Golden Knights prospect Reid Duke sits at his stall in the locker room at City National Arena, leans over, grips his skates with both hands and pulls them snug for another day of practice followed by off-ice workouts.
He knows the grueling schedule will eventually all be worth it. He’s seen it firsthand.
Duke was the first player in Golden Knights history, signing as a free agent on March 6, 2017. His first year with the franchise was cut short when he suffered a shoulder injury just prior to preseason that required surgery.
But while missing out on nearly an entire season of play in the American Hockey League isn’t ideal, it may have been a blessing in disguise. Duke spent the majority of the season with the main club in Vegas as he rehabbed his shoulder, and witnessed how NHL players prepare, perform and train on a daily basis.
“The biggest thing I learned is there is just so much incentive to put the work in to have the opportunity to put that jersey over your back,” Duke said. “To witness what happened this season with the fans and the city and the team, makes it really easy walking into training every day.”
The 22-year-old rookie was extremely productive with his junior hockey team, the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League. Duke registered 90 goals and 94 assists for 184 points in his 179 games in Brandon.
Last year, he was held scoreless in his 16 appearances with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, but that was after missing most of the season with a serious injury. Duke is now fully healthy heading into this offseason where he hopes to improve before his first full season of professional hockey.
“I think he’s definitely gotten better,” said fellow rookie Nick Suzuki, who skated in last summer’s development camp with Duke. “I know he had the injury that kind of set him back, but he looks really good on the ice. He’s fast and his shot is improved too. I think he’s only gotten better.”
Duke is one of the team leaders among the Golden Knights’ crop of youngsters competing in camp this week.
“He’s been to a few development camps before,” said Suzuki, who has also developed a leadership role in his second year with the franchise. “I think (the leaders) go early in the drills and show the younger guys that aren’t too sure. They are focused at the whiteboard, and go all out on the ice.”
Duke hopes to take what he learned watching the Golden Knights last season and apply it to his own game, as well as pass it on to the other rookies.
“I was around a lot of really good guys that taught me a lot and I feel like it’s my responsibility to do the same here and help these guys out whether it’s their first or second camp,” Duke said. “I know how I felt when it was my first NHL camp and you’re a little nervous, so it’s a lot of fun to come here and knowing what to expect. It takes the nerves away and you can just play hockey.”
The second-year players can remember the awkward feeling of not knowing the other players on the ice, and have tried their best to integrate the newcomers as seamlessly as possible.
“Some of the younger guys probably come in here a little nervous but if we’re out there having fun and playing hard I think it eases the other guys to relax and know that it’s still hockey,” Duke said. “You can see some guys are holding back and not being outgoing, they’re shy so you just say ‘Hey man how’s it going? How’s the skate going?’ and when they feel that we’re not all competition, we’re teammates out here I think that lets them take their guard down and be loose on the ice.”
Duke and Suzuki are also helping away from hockey. The players are all rooming at the Red Rock Resort across the street from City National Arena, with Duke and Suzuki leading the way in picking dinner spots.
“I’ve been here the most so if you need any restaurant recommendations I’m the guy,” Duke said, laughing. “I’ve eaten just about every place here 10 times.”
The development camp’s main goal is to hone the players’ hockey skills, but the team bonding and chemistry building is just as important.
“It’s good to get off the rink and see what guys are like off the ice,” Duke said. “When you build that chemistry, I think it really shows. That’s probably one of the best things about this second year. You get to come, relax and be yourself. You know the guys, and jump right out there, and you’re comfortable already.”