First Knight Reid Duke on signing with Vegas, weathering the WHL and proving the Wild wrong

Reid Duke was selected by the Wild in the sixth round (No. 169) of the 2014 NHL Draft. He never signed with Minnesota and became an unrestricted free agent before the Vegas expansion team made him its first player on March 6. Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Reid Duke will always be able to say he was first.

Sure, he'll forever be the answer to a trivia question, but these are exciting times for Duke. The 21-year-old signed an entry-level contract this week that makes him the first member of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who will begin play as the NHL's 31st franchise next fall.

ESPN.com caught up to the Calgary native, who was still basking in the warm glow of the previous 24 hours -- even if it wasn't actually so warm in Brandon, Manitoba, where he plays for the Western Hockey League's Brandon Wheat Kings. That team is owned in part by Kelly McCrimmon, who also happens to be the assistant GM of the Golden Knights.

ESPN.com: So, Reid, were you actually in Las Vegas to sign the contract -- or did you sign it remotely?

Duke: I signed the contract here in Brandon, here at our rink, just after our game.

ESPN.com: Did you win?

Duke: No we didn't win. But it's pretty hard for even a loss to take away from signing a contract.

ESPN.com: So what's it like in Brandon during the first week of March?

Duke: Oh my goodness, it's absolutely freezing out. We're in the middle of a terrible snowstorm. All the roads are closed, restaurants are closed, schools are closed. It's just typical Brandon weather. There are no igloos out here or polar bears, but it's tough getting anywhere right now.

ESPN.com: How did the whole NHL contract thing unfold?

Duke: Throughout the year I knew I was a player of interest to Vegas. And obviously I had the relationship with Kelly McCrimmon, who was my coach and GM last year and is still the owner [here]. So I would bump into him here and there. When I knew that they would be able to sign guys at the start of March, a few weeks prior to that negotiations got a little more serious. So just last week I kind of knew that something was going to get done and that, thankfully, Las Vegas was going to give me an opportunity.

ESPN.com: What was that like?

Duke: Kelly was here. He was at the game and it just so happened that my mom flew into town because we had three games and she was catching them. It was really, really special to share that moment with my mom as well as with Kelly McCrimmon. He brought me here and we won a championship together, so we've been through a lot and it was kind of nice to begin a new chapter in our lives together.

ESPN.com: How would you describe Kelly?

Duke: I probably couldn't say enough good things about Kelly. We have a great relationship. He's been one of the biggest influences in my hockey career. He's a man who has the utmost respect of those around him. I've learned so much from him on and off the ice. He's a real straightforward guy and someone who really brings the best out of people. I'm excited that we're going to be part of this team moving forward.

ESPN.com: He said he expects you to be an NHL player. What does that mean to you?

Duke: It means a lot. I know that he really means what he says. When I have someone like him in my corner moving forward I know they're going to give me every opportunity possible and obviously I know that they trust that I'm going to do everything I can to put that Golden Knights jersey on.

ESPN.com: What kind of Golden Knights swag do you have? Do you have a jersey with your name on it? A hat?

Duke: I don't have anything yet. I'm still focused on the Brandon Wheat Kings, my team right now. The playoffs are right around the corner. Once we unfortunately do play our last game I'm sure I'll be heading down to Vegas and also going to their development camp.

ESPN.com: Have you been to Vegas?

Duke: I have been there a few times. I stayed at Caesars Palace once or twice and at the Bellagio. My grandparents have a place down in California, so whenever I was young and we'd take a trip down there we'd drive and usually stop in Vegas, so I've seen a little bit of it.

ESPN.com: Is your family still in Calgary?

Duke: Yes. I was born there and grew up there. I have an older brother, Kelly, who is 23, and a younger brother, Tel, who's 16 and playing hockey as well. So it's kind of nice to be a role model for him. My parents, Paula and Gerry, have always been great supporters. They're thrilled this is going on right now.

ESPN.com: What do they do?

Duke: My mom owns a cleaning business and my dad is working with a metal company in Calgary.

ESPN.com: Were there some tears when the contract was signed?

Duke: Yeah, my mom was tearing up -- but obviously they were tears of joy. When you're faced with an opportunity like that it kind of makes you go back and think about everything that you've been through and everything that happened over the years and how hard you have worked to get this far. It definitely makes you feel blessed and it makes you be thankful for everything that's happened in your life to get to this point.

ESPN.com: After you signed the contract, who else do you hear from?

Duke: I'm so thankful for the family and the support I have. My mom has six siblings and my dad has five siblings, so we have a big family, and I heard from everybody. It was really nice to be able to share that with so many people, including friends and people I haven't seen in a few years. It's nice to see they're still keeping track. It's really cool to just see the support and the messages roll in because this is a pretty exciting time for my family and for myself.

ESPN.com: What has the reaction been like from your teammates in Brandon?

Duke: It's been amazing. There's been some jabs, obviously. It's been a fun two days at the rink. These are the guys who got me here. I couldn't thank them enough. We come to work at the rink every single day. There are so many players on our team who have been pushing me, and this is a compliment to them as well. I couldn't be here without them and it's nice to be able to share this with them because I know how happy they are for me. I'm really appreciative of that.

ESPN.com: What have they said to you? Have they started calling you "Vegas?"

Duke: Yeah there have been a few things like that. I know they're looking forward to me maybe taking them out to a dinner. I'm sure that'll have to happen here pretty soon.

ESPN.com: It's a good thing the restaurants are closed by the storm. It'll buy you some time.

Duke: Exactly.

ESPN.com: When you were originally drafted by the Minnesota Wild (in 2014) and didn't get a contract, was that discouraging?

Duke: Yeah, it was very difficult initially and thankfully I had a person like Kelly McCrimmon there to support me and help me along. He said to me right away, 'You can't let this get to you. You've got to get right back up.' Thankfully we were in the midst of a long playoff run so I didn't have too much time to sit back and lick my wounds -- and he was there pushing me. He decided we weren't going to tell anybody, which was such a good idea. The last thing that I needed was people feeling sorry for me. It didn't let me sit back and wallow. It made me get back on my toes and work to prove them wrong.