Flames forward Walker Duehr makes home-state history in NHL debut – Toronto Sun

Author of the article:

Wes Gilbertson

Calgary Flames right winger Walker Duehr evades a check by Ottawa Senators defenceman Thomas Chabot at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa on Nov. 14, 2021.
Calgary Flames right winger Walker Duehr evades a check by Ottawa Senators defenceman Thomas Chabot at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa on Nov. 14, 2021. Photo by Marc DesRosiers/USA TODAY Sports

What is South Dakota famous for?

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That, according to one of the locals, is easy.

“It’s gotta be Mount Rushmore,” said Calgary Flames forward call-up Walker Duehr, referring to a famed sculpture of U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and George Washington. “If you asked someone, ‘What’s the coolest thing in South Dakota?’ that would definitely be it. I haven’t been there since I was a young kid, but it’s pretty cool. I mean, it’s hard to believe that humans actually carved that and whatever else they did to make it look the way it does.

“It’s pretty cool architecture work.”

This is pretty cool, too.

Duehr suited up Sunday for his NHL debut, putting his home state on the map for another reason by becoming the first player from South Dakota to ascend to hockey’s highest level.

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As he waited for a shot at history, the 23-year-old right-winger from Sioux Falls admitted, “it’s kind of a crazy label to put next to my name if that does happen.”

It did, indeed, happen.

With the customary solo-lap treatment during pre-game warm-ups and then 8:47 of ice-time in a 4-0 victory over the Ottawa Senators, Duehr secured a spot on the Mount Rushmore of hockey players from the Mount Rushmore State. He was in the starting lineup at Canadian Tire Centre and immediately showed the qualities that earned him this opportunity, using his wheels to cause some chaos on the forecheck, bumping an opponent with his 6-foot-2 and 205-lb. frame and helping his team set up a shot in the offensive zone.

“It was unbelievable to see him out there and to do what he did on that first shift, it was awesome,” said Duehr’s cousin, Zeb Knutson, who chased this same dream, topping out with a pair of appearances in the American Hockey League and a full season in the ECHL. “It’s definitely been a journey for him and I’m glad he’s made it there, because now he can say it’s paid off.”

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For Duehr, it’s been both a long road and a rapid ascent.

Walker Duehr signed with the Flames this past spring after completing his collegiate career with the Minnesota State Mavericks.
Walker Duehr signed with the Flames this past spring after completing his collegiate career with the Minnesota State Mavericks. Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

There wasn’t much fanfare when he signed with the Flames this past spring after completing his collegiate career with the Minnesota State Mavericks. At that point, nobody was expecting the undrafted and unheralded forward to be in the bigs just a few months later.

In fact, the rookie pro nearly cracked Calgary’s opening-night roster before being assigned to the American Hockey League’s Stockton Heat among the final wave of training-camp cuts.

He admitted the demotion was “a bummer” but added “they gave me a few bullet points of things they want to see me keep doing and things they want to see me improve at a bit and keep working at, and they said I’m close. So it was good to get that positive reassurance and feedback to be able to go down to Stockton with some things in mind that if I do right and if there’s an opportunity, I could get called up.”

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That’s exactly what happened.

Duehr was summoned from the farm after an injury to fellow right-winger Brett Ritchie. He watched five in a row as a scratch before being plugged in against the Senators because Tyler Pitlick needed the night off due to a lower-body issue.

Post-game, there were plenty of text messages waiting from supporters in Sioux Falls, the biggest centre in South Dakota with a population of just shy of 200,000.

“It’s hard to put into words — you work your whole life for an opportunity like that,” Duehr said after practice the following afternoon in Philadelphia, where the Flames continue a seven-game roadie with Tuesday’s tilt against the Flyers (5 p.m. MT, Sportsnet One/Sportsnet 960 The Fan). “I was very, very thankful to get that opportunity, and just looking to build off that.”

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As a youngster, Duehr didn’t necessarily dream of NHL stardom. He wanted to be just like his older brother Wyatt and his cousin Zeb.

“I had those two that I was pretty much idolizing and looking up to my whole childhood,” Duehr said. “We played a lot of hockey in the backyard. We had a huge cement pad so we’d either just run around in our shoes or we’d be in rollerblades and we’d be beating the crap out of each other out there. I give a lot of credit to those guys for making me who I am today.”

Before scoring a plane ticket from Stockton to Calgary earlier this month, Duehr had plenty of experience stuffing a suitcase.

When he was just 14, he and Wyatt searched for a Triple-A team that they would roster both of them. They wound up in Las Vegas, living with a billet family. (There wasn’t a Triple-A program in Sioux Falls back then, something that has since changed.)

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The next winter, they skated for the Chicago Young Americans.

Walker was eventually drafted into the United States Hockey League and donned four different sweaters — including stops in Iowa, Nebraska and then two in Illinois — on that Junior A-level loop.

He ultimately followed his cousin to the University of Minnesota-Mankato, overlapping in 2017-18 when Zeb tied for the team scoring title as a senior and Walker was in and out of the lineup as a freshman forward. (Fast fact: A few years back, when FOX Sports published a list of the best hockey player from each state, Zeb was their selection from South Dakota, although they also mentioned Walker as one of the ‘impressive young players’ making a push.)

“Including my senior year online, I went to five different high schools,” Duehr said. “So it’s been pretty much a lifelong journey, ever since I first laced ’em up. And then ever since I left home at 14, I had some goals in mind of hockey. I mean, NHL kind of seemed like a distant dream at that time. The focus then was mostly just play juniors and maybe get a scholarship to play Div. 1. Once those two things happened, it was like, ‘Hey, I have my next goal in mind and I want to see if I can make that reality.’

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“So it means everything to be here.”

It means a lot back home, too.

“I think it’s a huge step for hockey in South Dakota,” said Jim Olander, the longtime broadcast voice and also team president for the Sioux Falls Stampede, the USHL squad in Duehr’s home city. “And I think he’s a great example of what it takes to be an NHL player. He’s a guy who has had to work his tail off from the beginning of his career, all the way through college until now. Nothing has been handed to him. He’s gotten there because of his work ethic and his strong play and determination to never give up.

“So I think it’s really exciting for Sioux Falls and for the state. The amount of hockey being played here continues to grow and grow from the youth level. Now, having something like this happen just gives kids somebody else to look up to and a goal for them to achieve down the road.”

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Added Knutson, now a pilot who was beaming with pride after his cousin made that historic debut: “I think it’ll give kids from South Dakota a lot more of a dream to pursue. Before, when you don’t have anybody from that area who has gotten to that point, the dream almost seems too far. But with Walker being able to show that it’s possible when you put in the hard work that he’s done, I think you’ll get a lot more kids that start to look up to him and start wanting and believing that they can play hockey at any level. I couldn’t think of another person who has worked their butt off more and done all the right things on and off the ice to get to that level. For him to have done it, he is the perfect role model for those youngsters to look up to and try to follow.”

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Determined to complete his own climb, the newcomer in No. 61 for the Flames hadn’t spent too much time pondering his spot in state history.

But when asked if it would have been significant to a 10-year-old Walker Duehr if there was somebody from South Dakota in ‘The Show,’ it seemed to hit home.

“Yeah, that probably would have been another role model of mine,” he replied. “I always had people in the NHL that I looked up to. Just my favourites, like (Alex) Ovechkin and whatnot. But if there had been a person that was like, ‘Hey, this person is from South Dakota, that means I can do it,’ that would have been pretty cool. If kids can look up to me as that to them, it’s pretty special to be able to do that.

“Hopefully I’m not the last guy to come out of South Dakota. I know there are some good players growing up there right now.”

wgilbertson@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/WesGilbertson

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