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Lethbridge's Duke using U-18 snub as motivation

by Aaron Vickers

CALGARY -- Reid Duke needn't look far for inspiration. For the most part, he can just look across the gym.

Duke, a center for the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the Western Hockey League, has spent the past month training alongside Red Deer Rebels center Conner Bleackley at Crash Conditioning in Calgary's southeast.

At least that was the case until Bleackley received his invitation to represent Canada at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship.

An invite to the NHL Scouting Combine has Lethbridge Hurricanes center Reid Duke determined to show what he's made of ahead of the 2014 NHL Draft. (Photo: CanesCast)

And while Bleackley and many of his other peers are at the Under-18 tournament in Finland chasing a gold medal, Duke is left chasing a different goal after scoring 15 goals and 40 points in 62 games for the last-place Hurricanes in 2013-14.

"It's tough," Duke said. "It doesn't happen too much. Usually the [Under-18] teams are made and I'm not worried about things like that, but definitely not being named, it's tough. You want to represent your country. You want to play there.

"After watching everybody go over there and start the tournament, I'm in the gym. It's a lot different. I'm glad, though. I'm proud of where I'm at. I'm not regretting anything."

Where Duke is at, though, is far from his training partner in the eyes of NHL Central Scouting. He is No. 137 on Central Scouting's final list of the top North American skaters and projected as a fourth-round selection at the 2014 NHL Draft. Bleackley, ranked No. 35, is within striking distance of first-round consideration.

It was a point driven home early in training sessions between the two when one NHL Eastern Conference scout interrupted the workout to chat with Bleackley. While one 18-year-old retreated to a more private setting with the quizzical scout, the other was left to push sleds on his own.

It's something Duke, who was No. 65 on Central Scouting's midterm rankings in January, doesn't take personally.

"There's a little bit of competition," Duke said. "We've known each other our whole lives. It's fun. We do it naturally. There are no hard feelings or anything like that. It's healthy. It pushes you."

It also reinforces Duke's plight. He's not the one in high demand at this point; not yet at least.

"Right now things aren't as bright as I'd like them to be, but I know pretty soon here that the floodgates are going to open and things are going to start going my way," he said. "After going through everything I've gone through the last couple years in Lethbridge, I know that there's going to be a bright side coming through."

Admittedly, the Calgary native hopes that bright side will shine through at the NHL Scouting Combine.

Duke has been confirmed as one of 120 draft-eligible players descending upon Toronto from May 25-31 to showcase not only their fitness characteristics in a battery of physical tests, but also their mental makeup in a variety of 1-on-1 interviews with interested NHL clubs.

It's at the Combine where Duke could find his silver lining.

"After coming back [to Calgary] and getting the news I'm going to the Combine, that was pretty exciting with everything going on after not being named to the U-18 team," Duke said. "That was kind of a boost to show what I have at the Combine in Toronto. I'm just looking forward to working hard. It's fun coming into the gym every day. I know it's going to pay off."

In addition to finishing third in team scoring with 40 points, the 5-foot-11, 189-pound right-hand shot was tied for the team lead with seven power-play goals.

"It's something different for me now," Duke said. "I'm looking forward to it. I'm excited. I'm kind of glad that it's my turn to walk with a chip and prove something.

"It definitely makes you work a lot harder, and that's what I'm taking out of it. I've got something to prove now other than getting drafted high. I have to prove things for myself. It's definitely motivating when you're in the gym."

Duke's motivation may be tied to the Combine, but it extends to his NHL Draft dream. He also carries a little chip on his shoulder after falling 72 spots on Central Scouting's final list.

"I know that's not where I'm going to be [drafted]; I know that number doesn't represent my game," he said. "I'm ready to show that. Coming into the Combine and interviews and stuff like that, I'm looking forward to showing the person who I am and I'm sure the play on the ice will follow."

There's no doubt in Duke's mind that it is more a matter of when and not if he will hear his name called on draft day regardless of ranking. He plans on being at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for the draft June 27-28.

"I try not to have it that way," Duke said. "You never know where you're going to go, but I'm going to go to the right team and I'm excited for that."

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