By Justin Skelnik | Photos by Ross Dettman
Chicago Wolves left wing Mike Duco has played in more than 225 professional hockey games during his four-year career, which includes 12 National Hockey League tilts.
Those games may never have materialized for him without some hard work and a little bit of being in the right place at the right time.
Duco went undrafted in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft after his first year with the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers. He was invited to the Edmonton Oilers training camp in both 2005 and 2006 on a tryout basis, but left both times without a professional contract. At the conclusion of the 2006-07 campaign, when other undrafted players were receiving invites to teams’ rookie camps, 30 NHL clubs again decided to pass on Duco. That bypassing was something that served as his wakeup call in how he prepared for and played the game.
“It was an eye-opener at first, not having a camp to go to, that is for sure,” Duco said. “I didn’t have the best year before that, at least not good enough to get an offer, and that just made me work even harder. That really helped me get to where I am today.”
Duco returned to Kitchener for his final year of junior hockey in early Sept. 2007. Besides the Rangers’ training camp going on, the town of Kitchener also was hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators and Florida Panthers in a four-team NHL rookie tournament. Duco was practicing with his Rangers teammates one day when his hockey career changed in an instant.
“The first day of practice in the rookie tournament, a player on the Panthers got hurt,” Duco recalled. “Florida didn’t want to fly anyone in, so they asked the Kitchener coaching staff if they had anyone they could use to fill that open spot. My coaches recommended me, and the next day I was practicing with the Panthers.
Before Duco skated with the Panthers, he was told not to expect much. He was especially told not to expect to play in a game. Duco accepted those guidelines without any hesitation. He was just happy to be practicing with an NHL club. He showed the Florida coaching staff enough in those first couple practices that he found himself in all four games of the tournament.
“I went in thinking I wasn’t going to get in a game, so I just went and worked hard in practice,” Duco said. “Florida ended up throwing me in the lineup and, in four games, I got in five or six fights to go along with a couple points. The next thing I knew, they are inviting me to their main training camp.”
Duco played in a few exhibition games with Florida, but was ultimately sent to its American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester. With a year of junior eligibility remaining, the Panthers sent him back to Kitchener from Rochester, but not before signing him to a three-year entry-level contract.
With an NHL contract in his pocket, Duco returned to the Rangers and posted career-bests with 32 goals, 54 points and 173 penalty minutes in 62 contests. His 173 penalty minutes ranked seventh in the OHL that season, but racking up minutes in the sin bin is something that comes with the role Duco has played since he was a child.
“I really started to play a physical game right when contact was allowed when I was 12 years old,” Duco said. “I was always a little smaller than most people, so my dad always told me to try and make up for my size by playing physical. I guess I took that to heart and I have been doing it ever since. Once I started playing physical as a child, I knew it would have to be part of my game in order to achieve success as a player. I am still one of the shorter players at 5-9 but, at 195 pounds, I am one of the thicker guys out there, for sure, and I use my body type to my advantage.”
Hitting, taking the body, and fighting have been a part of Duco’s repertoire since he was young. In his first year with the Wolves, he has also been tasked with a new aspect of the game: penalty-killing.
“Killing penalties has been great,” Duco said. “It is my first year as a legit penalty-killer and I feel I’m fairly natural at it. The Wolves, as a unit, really take pride in killing penalties and we want to be the best in the league. Hopefully I can keep up the success on the penalty kill.”
One side of his game that Duco thinks Wolves fans have yet to see is his offensive upside. Last season, he paced Rochester with 20 goals but, as of Dec. 26, he only had bagged five with the Wolves; one of them coming on an empty net. He confesses that 11 of his goals last year came on the power play and Duco knows that is not his role this season with the Wolves. He is just happy being part of the team.
“Most people probably haven’t seen too much of an offensive game from me yet,” Duco said. “I am happy in my role and killing penalties, but I know I can bring more offense to the table. Hopefully I can start putting up some numbers soon.”
While Duco may be down about his offensive numbers being low, he doesn’t let that affect his mood in the dressing room. He is one of the driving forces behind the Wolves close-knit and loose locker room. Duco is occasionally the butt of a lot of people’s jokes, but he laughs it off and then gets even.
“You can’t take things too seriously in this environment,” Duco said. “I definitely enjoy messing around with the guys, especially (Wolves forward) Matt Clackson. I just like to keep things light and make sure people are having a good time.
“There is a time to be serious and a time for fun. At the end of the day, it is just a game. The friendships you make and the little things you experience with them are the things you really remember. I am just happy I have the opportunity to be a part of it.”