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No laughing matter

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

Brady Calla’s work ethic is part of the reason Mike Duco is battling for a roster spot with the Vancouver Canucks.

Gather around the fireplace, my Canucks fans; let me tell you a story. It’s a tale of gritty effort, youthful enthusiasm and no holds barred tenacity.

In early September 2007, Calla, a then 19-year-old draftee of the Florida Panthers, was redefining exertion during practice when he injured his groin. The 73rd overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft was training hard for an upcoming rookie tournament, hosted by the Panthers, at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium in Kitchener, Ontario.

The four-team round-robin tournament, similar to Young Stars Tournament put on by the Canucks in Penticton each fall, gave the Panthers, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins a chance to showcase their stars of the future.

Calla was set to be on display as one of those stars and you’ll never guess who ended up filling in for him in Florida’s line-up.

“They needed a guy and didn’t want to fly someone in, so they went to my coaches Steve Spott and Peter DeBoer and asked for a player,” explained Duco, a then Kitchener Rangers forward who had his head on a swivel for Ashton Kutcher as he thought he was being punked.

“I thought they were joking with me at first because my coaches always liked to play pranks on me, I was pretty close with them. Duane Sutter (then a member of Florida’s scouting staff) came up and said they needed a player and I still kind of thought they put him up to it.”

The joke was on Duco. Well, not really. The Panthers signed him to an Amateur Tryout that day.

In Duco’s debut on September 7, 2007, the then 20-year-old was a sparkplug swinging momentum to the Panthers every time he jumped off the bench. At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, physicality was the name of Duco’s game, but he flashed some offence as well scoring the game-winning goal in a 2-1 win over the Senators.

Duco didn’t mention that glorious goal when detailing the opportunity to play for the Panthers to me earlier this week following Canucks practice at UBC, instead opting to outline the fisticuffs necessary for him to land an invite to Florida's main camp a few weeks later. That led to a pre-season appearance and eventually an entry-level contact.

“Interesting” is how Duco describes how things went from there. He played out his overage year with the Rangers putting up an OHL career-best 32 goals and 54 points, alongside 173 penalty minutes. He made the jump to the AHL’s Rochester Americans a year later and after pairing 28 points (14-14-28) with 147 PIM, he was back and forth between the Americans and Panthers over the next two seasons.

This past summer Duco, a restricted free agent, was tendered an offer from the Panthers, who then traded his rights to the Canucks for the rights to Sergei Shirokov.

Now 24-years-old, Duco is back fighting for a spot in the NHL and all reports thus far have been positive. He personifies the cliché “little guy” with a feisty, attitude driven game that has him ready to take on bigger players on any given night.

Duco hasn’t changed a thing since he was four-years-old playing with his older brother Johnny and his seven-year-old friends.

“My dad was the coach of my brother’s house league team, so I got the chance to play,” smiled Duco, recalling his early days.

“As soon as contact came in during atom or whatever it was, it was my biggest thing. Everyone started to realize that most people at that age wasn’t really hitting, but I was running around and crushing players.

“It’s always been in my game to finish my hits and my dad always told me that I’m smaller than everyone, so I’ve got a lot more to prove and you have to work that much harder.”

Naturally Duco gravitated towards, how do I say, lively forwards as inspiration. You won’t like who he models his game after, but if he’s even 20 per cent successful in emulating the good parts of their games, Vancouver will be delirious for Duco in no time.

“Obviously being from Toronto I always-watched Darcy Tucker and, I hate to say it, but maybe a little bit of Avery,” grinned Duco. “I know everyone hates him and he’s a little bit too much at times, but I feel like I play a little bit similar to that kind of player.

“Those are two guys that get under opponent’s skin, they’re willing to drop the gloves, they go out and give it their all every night and they’re able to put the puck in the net at any given time, so as of now that sums up my game.

“We’ll see what it’s like in the future here, but up until this day I’ve always been able to put the puck in the net my entire junior career, and I always fought and I was usually the most physical player on the ice.”

Duco took a page from both their books last season by leading the Americans in goals with 20 and finishing fourth in penalty minutes with 126.

Now it’s time he does it in the NHL.

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