Reid Duke had just finished mugging for cameras with his Brandon Wheat Kings teammates—Monday was team picture day—when news of his historic signing with the Vegas Golden Knights went public.
The 21-year-old from Calgary, known to teammates as “Duker,” is the first player in history signed to the franchise after inking an entry-level contract on Sunday night.
Duke, who leads the Western Hockey League’s Wheat Kings with 67 points (35 goals and 32 assists in 54 games), caught up with Sportsnet to talk about this unexpected next chapter in his career, what he knows about the bright lights of Las Vegas, and what it’s like to be the only guy on the team.
Has the news sunk in?
No, honestly. Not at all. It’s pretty amazing. It’s a dream come true for myself and my family.
Except you couldn’t have dreamt of this…
Definitely not, and that’s why it’s so surreal. I grew up watching a team, having a favourite [the Calgary Flames] and then all of a sudden you’re a part of something brand new. It’s something you can’t expect or think about or dream of. It’s amazing how things can come to pass.
You’re the best player on your NHL team.
[Laughs.] That’s a funny way to look at things. I guess that’s the way it is right now. It’s kinda cool. Hopefully I can say that in the future sometime, too.
Have you ever been to Las Vegas?
Yeah—when I was really, really, young, though. I haven’t gotten the opportunity to really experience what Las Vegas has to offer. I’m excited to go back.
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear ‘Las Vegas.’
[Laughs.] Tourism. The casinos. But hopefully I can help change that to a little bit of hockey. It’ll be quite the change, with hockey being played in that city.
It’ll be quite the change for you. You’re from Calgary, you’ve played your junior career in Lethbridge and Brandon. Your next stop is different.
Even coming from Calgary and moving to Brandon, it was quite the change. But it’s not like I haven’t been in a big city before—I know Calgary is not quite like Las Vegas [laughs] but going there I have one goal in mind, and that’s to focus on hockey and make the Golden Knights.
How many text messages have you gotten from friends telling you they’ll be visiting you there?
A lot. I don’t know if they’re all gonna be coming down to watch the hockey. Hopefully they come down for everything else and maybe end up catching a game if they’re not too busy doing anything else. [laughs.] I have a lot of friends and family that are happy for me. I know Vegas is an easy place to take a trip down to.
You’re having the best year of your career. What’s the difference in your game?
The motivation I had coming into the season. I wasn’t involved with an NHL team, so I was doing everything within my abilities to get my name out there and get noticed, because this was really my last chance.
I was told in the midst of my team’s playoff run last year that Minnesota [who drafted Duke in the sixth round in 2014] wouldn’t be signing me. Obviously that was devastating news. Ever since then, I focused on trying to get my name out to any other NHL team.
When I was playing hockey here in Brandon, having someone like Kelly McCrimmon [Wheat Kings owner and Golden Knights assistant GM] to support me and help me out was huge—he’s been so instrumental in my hockey career and he’s really helped me get back on track and not let that affect me. I think facing that adversity has helped shape the player and person I am right now.
How would you describe your game?
I’m a really good two-way forward. I have good vision, good skills, good stick-handling abilities. I’m a good skater. I like to think of myself as a pass-first player, but also someone that enjoys scoring and using my shot, too.
You can pick any player in the NHL as your first teammate. Forget about protected players, choose anyone you want. Who would it be?
I would probably have to say—oh geez, I don’t know. I think it’d be pretty cool if Nolan Patrick [his Wheat Kings teammate, and the favourite to go first overall in the 2017 NHL Draft] would be there with me. That would be crazy if we ended up there together.
He’s not an NHL player, though.
Alright, alright. I’d have to say Sidney Crosby. I’m sure that’s quite the typical answer, but he’s someone that anybody can really look up to and if you’re going to the rink every day with a player and a person like that, I’m sure he’s someone that you can learn from. I’m sure that Vegas won’t be getting Crosby anytime soon, but any players you can learn from, and that help you out in the game, I think would be great.
What are you most looking forward to about the Vegas experience?
The more I think of things, I’m really excited for the city. They haven’t seen anything like this. When you think of sports in Vegas, you may have thought of a baseball team or a football team being the first team there, but now it’s hockey. It’s really cool that I can be a part of something that’s bringing ice hockey down to Nevada.
How did this deal come together?
Early on this season I knew that Vegas had some interest in me and that I was a player that might be on their radar. In the last week, negotiations and conversations really started to heat up and finally in the last two days we knew we were gonna get a deal done, and then [Sunday] night ultimately signing a contract. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind but I’m really glad to get it all done.
Who’s the first person you told that you were signing with the Golden Knights?
My mom. It was so exciting. Honestly, I’m on Cloud 9 right now. So is my family. I actually had my mom in town for it. It was really special to share that moment with her.
Were there tears?
She was pretty emotional. I didn’t quite get there, but she was pretty overjoyed. My mom grew up in a small town just outside of Brandon so we had some family come in for the game [on Sunday]. Once I signed the contract I got to tell everybody and we all went out for a nice dinner. A couple of teammates knew, so we were all enjoying it together. It was a really nice evening.
You probably don’t know where you’ll live yet during training camp. Maybe on or near the main strip?
[Laughs]. I’m thinking that staying on the strip probably isn’t the best idea. I haven’t heard much of what’s gonna happen, but no, I’ll be sure to try and stay focused as much as I can, and I don’t think hanging at the Bellagio would be the best move.