During the 1999-00 season, Kevin Lowe walked into the Oilers dressing room and saw the players and trainers pushing the ping-pong table to the side, creating a makeshift ring in the centre of the room.
The Oilers then-head coach was going to put an end to the shenanigans, prepared to say, “No, no, no, no, no, not a chance!”
Before Lowe could even open his mouth to speak, the trainers explained it was all Glen Sather’s idea.
The legendary builder of the Oilers, Sather had this great idea one day to rile up a couple tough customers and get them to spar each other. In one corner stood the mountain of a man Georges Laraque. In the other was long-time Oilers fitness consultant Daryl Duke. Sather first went up to Laraque, poking the bear.
“You’re not as tough as you think you are,” Sather said, according to those in attendance.
Daryl Duke poses for a photo. Photo Provided.
Laraque replied with something to the effect of, “Yeah I am, I’m going to beat up anybody in the League.”
Sather replied, “You can’t even beat Dukie!”
Sather then approached Duke and continued to stoke the fire, telling the former kickboxing champion that Laraque was getting chirpy.
“I’m quicker than him,” Duke said, and then it was on.
“It was completely surreal,” said Lowe. “It was then, and it is now. It was right out of the movies. It was right out of a Rocky movie, to be honest.”
Now, Laraque had close to 100 pounds on Duke. But the “underdog” was tough as nails and had fought bigger foes in the ring than an NHL enforcer. The two began swinging.
“From the second they started, I realized they weren’t fooling around,” Lowe recalls.
When Laraque caught Duke with the first hard punch, the fitness guru took on a whole new level as his competitiveness and natural instincts as a boxer came out.
Remember at the end of Rocky III when Rocky and Apollo Creed concluded the movie with the iconic freeze-frame simultaneous punch? Well, something like that happened in the Oilers locker room, only this time the players and staff got to see the results.
“By the time it’s over, Dukie had won the fight. Joey Moss counts Laraque out on a 10-count,” said former Oilers Assistant Equipment Manager Chris ‘Sliver’ Delorey.
“Both went down but Dukie, having the boxer instincts, hopped up right away,” said Lowe. “Then Georges got it in the eye and had to get some medical help in the dressing room and missed some games because of it.”
Daryl Duke never stopped fighting, not until the end.
In June of 2015, the Oilers long-time fitness consultant would pass away due to health complications. His long and courageous battle with pancreatic cancer would come to an end, but those close to him like to say he still won that fight.
“Technically, the cancer didn’t get him,” said Sliver, Duke’s close friend.
Duke died as a result of blood issues, which developed following complications with pneumonia.
“His son and I make a point of saying he beat cancer,” said Sliver. “He was a fighter to the end and the cancer was not what got him. That’s our only solace for it. He fought from 1988 to 2015. He dealt with it for almost 30 years, and never had a bad day.”
Laraque expressed his sadness at the loss of his friend and former sparring partner shortly after the news.
“We lost a warrior today, and he’s the reason I played in the NHL,” Laraque posted on Twitter June 4, 2015. Laraque’s sentiments are mirrored by so many other Oilers players from the 1990s and 2000s.
Duke, according to his friends and colleagues, was the kind of man who would always take the time to answer people’s questions; always friendly and never allowing his struggle with cancer to show in his everyday life.
An internal fire burned inside of Duke, driving him to constantly compete against himself. Duke was a fighter in his younger years, becoming the Canadian and Commonwealth professional kickboxing champion. When he became a consultant with the Oilers, Duke’s commitment showed.
“It was all personal,” said Sliver. “He didn’t care how anybody else was doing and everybody else is lucky he didn’t because he was destroying guys anyways. He was 20 years older than some of the hockey players and still in better shape than most of them.”
One day, Sliver walked into the gym and Duke was pushing himself on the bike. He had invented this ride in which the players attempted to burn through 500 calories the fastest. Players like Chad Kilger and Frank Musil could do it in 17 or 18 minutes. Duke drove himself to be better. There he was that day, cranking the pedals and making himself physically ill on the bike.
“Why are you going that hard?” Sliver asked.
Without a word, Duke pointed to a sign he had previously hung in the dressing room. On it, a motto Duke lived by.
“Character is how hard you work when no one is looking.”
Sliver has since acquired that sign and it sits in his home, a constant memory of Duke and his friendship. Sliver was given his nickname when he became a stick boy with the Oilers as a teenager due to his slender build. Sliver asked Duke to help train him and help him make gains in the gym. Duke told him he would, but only if Sliver would commit to returning to the gym two more days a week.
“I agreed, and he absolutely killed me,” said Sliver. “I was distraught. I was so exhausted, my brain was scrambled, I was shaking and all I could think of was that I had to go back. I had made an agreement! He laughed. If I think about it, I can still hear his laugh any time to this day. It was a scary chuckle.”
Duke wouldn’t commit time and energy to people who didn’t return the favour.
“If I’m going to give you my time, you’re going to give me yours,” he would say.
Some of the Oilers players loved his intense nature and workout plans, others hated them. There was no middle ground. Either players would commit themselves and ask for more or they would hide from Duke and choose to stretch, rehab and get treatment on their own. Duke fed the competitive nature of players who committed their time and energy to him.
When Duke was with the Oilers for a decade, beginning in 1995-96, he helped a roster with low salary numbers compete against some of the NHL’s higher paid, star-studded squads.
“He had a way about him to get guys to push their limit a bit,” said Lowe. “If you think of those early 2000s teams, we had a less than $30-million payroll and we’re competing against Colorado, Dallas and Detroit in our division and our conference that had $70 to 80-million payrolls. The one thing that team had was a lot of inner fortitude. There were a lot of character guys who were able to push themselves.”
Guys like Frank Musil, Josh Green, Marty Reasoner, Ryan Smyth and Jason Smith flocked to Duke.
“You talk about determination and steadfast character and those are the guys who would search out Daryl Duke,” said Sliver.
The lead-up to the 2006 Stanley Cup Final run for the Oilers was largely based on the foundation Duke helped put in place in the previous years.
“You don’t put fitness in place in one season that gets guys to the Stanley Cup Final,” said Sliver. “Daryl Duke was the guy that got all those guys in good enough shape to get to the Stanley Cup Final.”
“He had great ethics of training,” said Lowe. “He overcame a lot of things in his life to get where he was. Pretty impressive guy.”
Daryl Duke talks to one of his fighters. Photo Provided.
Duke overcame nerve damage in his right hand to become a champion kickboxer, world-ranked in his weight class. He owned and operated his own gym and joined the Oilers franchise, helping them achieve success on and off the ice. His life story is one long fight, leaving its mark on those who knew him.
Duke was feeling ill in 1988, so ill he decided to go see a doctor. That brought with it the unfortunate and scary cancer diagnosis. Three days later, with that dark cloud still hovering over him, Duke rallied to attend a boxing match and sit ringside with a fighter he was training.
Silver recalls that the fighter, Frank, was losing the fight when Duke, who could barely stand, told the boxer something personal.
“I need you to win this fight for me,” said Duke.
“Frank says a fire literally erupted inside of him. He went out and killed the guy the next two rounds,” said Sliver. “It was over and he won. Dukie doesn’t ask you that normally. I think he needed to be inspired and Frank was his guy at the time.”
Maybe seeing his fighter rally helped Duke, because he never did give up in his own fight.
“He fought his whole life,” said Sliver. “It would go away into remission and then come back. It was always pancreatic cancer. Even at the end, he was fighting.”
Lowe looks back on Duke’s scrap with Laraque in the Oilers dressing room as one of the “top 10 highlights” of his career. It is a story that has been told by former players, staff, media members and fans for years.
When Sather pitted Laraque against Duke, he certainly knew the credentials of each fighter. Both were tough individuals, but while the Oilers have had many tough customers in their history, you’d be hard-pressed to find many with the same spirit, fire and fight as Daryl Duke.