Panthers prospect Mike Duco (Photo Credit: Kitchener Rangers)
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
A little hope.
That’s all Mike Duco wanted last summer. Who could blame him? The kid from Scarborough, Ontario, hadn’t been invited to any NHL rookie camps. He had no NHL aspirations for the coming year. Undrafted, unwanted…
“I was prepared to go back to my team in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) without a contract,” Duco said.
But things can change fast. Take Duco as an example. When he begins play tonight in the Memorial Cup for the OHL champion Kitchener Rangers, Duco will be one of the most exciting players on the ice as well as one of the Panthers brightest prospects.
Duco was working out alone last summer when he received an invitation to attend Panther rookie camp in Kitchener. Duco thought it was a joke. But the Panthers were looking for a body after prospect Brady Calla injured himself, and director of scouting Scott Luce and amateur scout Luke Williams had Duco on their radar after watching him play against the Panthers in an exhibition game the year before for Edmonton.
So enter Duco.
And after that? “It was the Mike Duco Show,” Luce said.
Duco was a physical presence from the opening faceoff. Not only that, but he scored a goal, got an assist, and had a fight. “I guess I impressed the coaches,” Duco said.
He impressed the Panthers brass enough to earn himself his first NHL contract.
“After I signed I was on cloud nine,” said Duco Thursday evening as he prepared for Friday’s opening of the Memorial Cup. “I didn’t think it would happen. I never expected it. I mean, I wasn’t invited to any camps. I was just preparing to work as hard as I could over the summer for one last shot.
“But when I got signed, I wanted to prove they hadn’t made a bad decision.”
The Panthers have been pleased with the development of Duco. Described as feisty and tough – he modeled his game after a young Darcy Tucker – Duco scored 32 goals (22 assists) and had 173 penalty minutes in 62 regular season games. But in the OHL playoffs, he was even more impressive, scoring 16 goals in 20 games.
When asked if he’s been surprised at his scoring prowess this season, Duco laughed and said, “I’m actually very surprised. I didn’t think I’d become even somewhat of a goal scorer. But I have great linemates and I’ve been in the right place at the right time.”
Duco also credits Duane Sutter, the Panthers’ director of player development, with his improvement, especially when it comes to knowing when to be an agitator.
“Duane has given me guidance on what to do,” Duco said. “He’s been adamant about being good at the defensive game. As long as you stick to that, and you play physical, you’ll create open ice.”
Sutter says he’s had several conversations with Duco about his physical play. “He is an agitator – he’s excitable and has a short fuse - but he has skill, too,” Sutter said. “I think the thing about Mike is that he’s matured a lot. He’s also playing for an organization that’s put together a pretty good hockey team and Mike is a very well coached player.”
Duco is modest as he is honest. And he also has something the Panthers have lacked in recent years – personality.
When the rest of the Kitchener Rangers shaved their heads for the playoffs, Duco chose to get a mohawk. But only after checking with Sutter.
“I sent Duane an e-mail to tell him what I was thinking of doing,” Duco said. “I didn’t want to look unprofessional or make the wrong impression for the Florida Panther organization.”
Sutter laughs when reminded of Duco’s call.
“He said he didn’t want to come across as unprofessional,” Sutter said. “But that’s the way he is, very respectful and humble. He’s done very well. But, ultimately, a kid has to have an open mind and be willing to listen and learn. So far, Mike has shown he can do that.”