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How Did The Golden Knights Find Reid Duke?

Being in the right place, at the right time, put Duke on Vegas' radar last September

by Dan Marrazza @GoldenKnights / VegasGoldenKnights.com

Boo.

Are you scared?

Well, you shouldn't be.

After all, we're not talking about ghosts. Nor are we talking about Usher's girlfriend, characters from To Kill a Mockingbird nor any other sort of apparition.

In fact, the Boo we're talking about doesn't scare anybody. Except opposing goaltenders.

He's a highly thought of prospect named Cristoval "Boo" Nieves who plays for the American Hockey League's Hartford Wolf Pack, after being drafted by the New York Rangers five years ago.

While Boo has zero obvious connection to Vegas, this center sits at the very crux of the story of how the Golden Knights identified and eventually signed Reid Duke as the first player in franchise history on Monday.

To find out how a minor leaguer named Boo, 2,600 miles away, with zero NHL goals to his name, influenced Vegas' signing of Duke, we have to go to Northern Michigan.

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Video: Watch highlights of the Golden Knights' Reid Duke

 

* * * *

 

Traverse City, Mich. is known for three things: lakes, tart cherries and an autumn hockey tournament to which a handful of NHL franchises lug their prospects every September.

The setting is reminiscent of a summer hockey camp. The games are held in a tiny local rink and the atmosphere isn't too intense.

Except it is critically important for the prospects who are participating. For these kids, normally between 18 and 21 years of age, it's one of the seminal events of their season.

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Where before they pack their bags to play for their junior or minor league clubs, this is their chance to perform in front of scouts for all 31 NHL clubs at the same time. Even if they don't have much hope of playing in the NHL for a number of years, this is an opportunity for them to play their way into their organization's good graces, or to catch the eye of another franchise.

It's often not about making the roster of the team whose logo they're wearing as much as it is about establishing their reputation around the sport.

The Golden Knights had a contingent in Traverse City for the first time this past September.

 

Watch: Youtube Video

 

* * * *

 

Wil Nichol never played pro hockey.

But the Golden Knights Director of Player Development, imported this past summer from the Washington Capitals and long familiar with general manager George McPhee, knows a good hockey player when he sees one.

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When Nichol scouts games - up to six per week - he has a routine. Arrive early, find a clear vantage point of the ice and sit as far away from anyone else as possible.

Allows him to focus on the game better, he says.

It's through this method that Nichol has been crisscrossing the continent, ducking and diving into venues, large and small, to try to identify future NHL players for the Golden Knights all winter.

Nichol primarily sticks to the amateur ranks.

On September 20 of this past year, he primarily stuck to one player. Especially after the Rangers' top forward in Traverse City, Boo Nieves, left an otherwise meaningless game with the Columbus Blue Jackets on the final day of the tournament during the first period with the always-popular upper-body injury.

 

Tweet from @GoldenKnights: Everything you need to know about the newest Golden Knight ����� pic.twitter.com/aeEkzv3yTg

 

Nothing major, but not worth risking further harm over in a throwaway game, with both teams having already been eliminated from the tournament.

This was what allowed an afterthought invitee - more of an extra body than anything else - to join the Rangers in Traverse City to move up to play between stud prospects Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich on the team's top line for the rest of the game.

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It was Reid Duke.

"Not only did he not miss a beat, he was really good," Nichol said of Duke. "He looked like he belonged.

"He was able to move up or down a lineup and be able to make plays. He just showed at Traverse City that he had really good skill, really good hockey sense and really good compete level.

"We decided as a staff that this was a young man that we should continue to watch closely."

Duke finished the game with one assist. He was cut by the Rangers immediately afterwards.

He instead returned to his junior club, the Brandon Wheat Kings.

 

Tweet from @TheWHL: Redi Duke scores the overtime winner. Brandon is now one win away from the Ed Chynoweth Cup. #WHLChampionship pic.twitter.com/bleI96UMV3

 

* * * *

 

When outsiders consider life in the Canadian Hockey League, it seems like a dream.

Teenagers, kids really, who all they have to do is play hockey. They can live it and breathe it. And with pro caliber coaches and NHL scouts attending every game, it seems like the fast track to the big time.

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For Reid Duke, however, the beginning of this past season seemed like the end of the line.

After not sticking with the club that drafted him and passing through Rangers and Montreal Canadiens camps over the summer, Duke entered his final year of junior eligibility seeming like a kid that wasn't going to make it.

If he couldn't make it work this season, his hockey career would've been over. At age 21, before he ever really got going.

"When you're a young guy, you've got your whole junior career ahead of you," Duke said. "When people tell you it's going to go by fast, you don't really understand until you're finally in your last season.

 

Tweet from @GoldenKnights: Monday nights are a whole lot better knowing that this guy is on our side������#BoldInGold pic.twitter.com/S1X7p1HEzS

 

"Coming into this season, I knew that I didn't have much time left. When you're face to face with adversity like that and everything that had taken place, you're pretty motivated. Coming into this year, that's exactly what I was. It was because I knew I didn't have a lot of time left."

Time was something Duke did not have. But what he did have was the attention of Nichol, who stayed hot on Duke's trail throughout the winter after being intrigued by his brief fill-in on the Rangers' top line in Traverse City.

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Combing the prairies of Western Canada throughout the winter, Nichol checked in on Duke as often as he could.

Despite the setbacks he knew Duke had experienced, Nichol saw something different.

Nichol saw a kid who could not only pass, shoot and score, but also one who "got it." One who not only was his team's leading scorer, but one who had obviously learned lessons from past disappointments. Nichol saw a kid that looked like a diamond in the rough.

 

Tweet from @GoldenKnights: A Duke becomes a Knight��������� pic.twitter.com/eRm3oVugRf

 

It helped that Nichol could routinely consult with the Wheat Kings owner and Duke's coach the past two seasons, Kelly McCrimmon, who joined the Golden Knights as assistant general manager last August.

"Reid's a player that I've known as a scout since he was 14-years-old," McCrimmon said. "He was a really highly regarded player in his peer group. In his particular age group, he was selected fourth overall in Western Canada. So he was a guy that everyone knew and had regard for.

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"I had the opportunity to coach Reid for two full seasons. He's been a player that I've always had a great relationship."

Perhaps nobody in hockey knows Duke quite like McCrimmon does. It's been McCrimmon who's watched Duke for years. It's McCrimmon who rode the buses with him, stayed in the same hotels, ate the same meals and had the difficult conversations throughout the ups and downs of the player's most trying year in hockey.

It's McCrimmon who is almost like a father figure for Duke.

Through his own reports and the insights of McCrimmon, Nichol became intimately familiar with Duke, as did the rest of the Golden Knights staff.

Vegas wasn't only familiar with Duke on the ice, where he rallied around the pressure of not having a pro contract in his final year of junior eligibility by having the best season of his career -35 goals and 32 assists in 54 games, entering this weekend.

 

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The Golden Knights have also gotten to know this player as a person. Especially as Nichol's portfolio of reports and McCrimmon's findings began to paint the same picture: that Duke may not be a can't-miss talent, but he has all the tools to play in the NHL.

That Duke might not be a first-round pick like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin or Patrick Kane. But that there are indications that he can be like a Chris Kunitz, a Tyler Johnson or a Dan Girardi- players who were late bloomers and established themselves as impact NHL players after slipping through the cracks in their teenage years.

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"I've worked with George (McPhee) before," Nichol said. "Character is really important to George McPhee. Reid Duke is not just a real good hockey player and a legit NHL prospect. He has that high-end character.

"I think the thing that stood out to me the most is that he's had adversity. He was drafted, he was unsigned. He went to the New York Rangers rookie camp and main camp this last fall, and didn't get signed. He's had adversity in this sport at a young age.

"Not only has he persevered, he's had a heck of a year. We want guys who push forward. We want guys that don't give up. We feel that those are the guys that are going to bring us championships."  

 

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* * * *

 

Duke is probably not ready to lead the Golden Knights to a championship.

To date, he's still the only player the franchise has under contract, and not what the rest of hockey deems a marquee signing.

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Finishing his junior career this spring and seemingly destined to turn pro this fall, Duke still has his work cut out for him.

 

Tweet from @caidendaley88: Congrats to the roomie on making history today!!! Milkers on you(: @rduke96 pic.twitter.com/9Hs1p9vdUg

 

Pro hockey isn't juniors, after all.

"When we project Reid, we think his game will evolve as he becomes a pro," McCrimmon said. "We believe he's going to be an NHL player."

When - and if - that will happens remains to be seen.

But now the first signing in Golden Knights history, it appears as if Duke has finally begun to say…

Boo.

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