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The long wait is over for Coyotes prospect Artem Duda. He is expected to play his first game for Toronto Metropolitan University against Brock University at TMU’s Mattamy Home Ice on Thursday night. This will be Duda’s first game in almost eight months.
“I can’t describe my feelings and how excited I am, waiting for my first official game,” he said in an interview on Dec. 29. “I missed too much time. I need to prepare and be ready mentally. I will be adapting slowly but hopefully, everything will be good and I will catch my conditioning like when I was on top of my conditioning before.”
It wasn’t supposed to take this long.
When Duda left Moscow this past summer, the plan was to enroll and play at the University of Maine. Duda arrived in Orono in early June to take an intensive English course. When school began in the fall, he attended classes while he waited for the NCAA to decide whether he was eligible to play.
Duda had played 14 games in the KHL the season before with CSKA Moskva. There were concerns that those games might affect his eligibility, but his case was not unprecedented.
“At that point, I did not know the whole risk because I completely put my trust in my agent,” he said.
The NCAA denied Duda’s case initially, but he submitted new information in the appeals process and hoped for a reversal. When he was denied again in November, he was no longer allowed to practice with the team or take part in any official team activities so he worked out on his own, running on the track, lifting in the gym, skating whenever there was open ice and diving headlong into his studies where he finished the semester with a grade-point average above 3.0 despite the language barrier.
In December, the NCAA denied Duda’s final appeal so his agent, Mark Gandler, orchestrated the move to TMU. Because Canadian universities are not governed by the IIHF or the NCAA, their eligibility rules are more lenient.
Duda had played with TMU forward Daniil Grigorev the past four seasons with CSKA Moskva’s U16, U17 and U18 teams and then with Krasnaya Armiya (Red Army) Moskva in the MHL. They also played in international competitions together. Grigorev’s presence at TMU made the transition easier and much more palatable for Duda.
“It’s nice I can speak in Russian with someone,” he said, smiling. “I started to talk about Toronto in the middle of November. We sent to the Canadian application center my documents, passport and I wanted to get a visa as soon as possible. One day, I flew to New York and did some stuff for my visa. A couple of weeks later, I got my visa and I could move to Toronto.”
Duda left Maine on Dec. 26 with plenty of regrets. He said he enjoyed his brief time there, and he thanked the Black Bears coaching staff and players repeatedly during this interview.
The feeling was mutual.
“He’s a fantastic kid,” Maine coach Ben Barr said. “That’s why it’s so hard to see what happened to him.
“He likes going to school and he’s not the type of kid that when you leave him by himself, you’re worried about him. He’s really self-sufficient. He’d sit in his room and do his homework. He’s a fitness freak, too, so he was always working out on his own. He was very quiet and reserved to start, and then as he got more comfortable with the culture, he was fine. The guys really liked him. He would have been a great addition to our team, but hopefully, he can find a path here and find some stability because he deserves it. He’s been through a lot of crap the last year.”
Duda has not played a game since he took part in an international tournament for Russia in May; an event in which he sustained a concussion. Stepping onto the ice for TMU will be a challenge on several fronts.
“U Sports is a high level of competition; it’s one of the best kept secrets in hockey,” said Coyotes development coach Nathaniel Brooks, who was an assistant and then associate coach at TMU from 2014-2022 when it was still called Ryerson University. “You have players with years of major junior experience, and players that were drafted to the NHL and didn’t sign who are getting their education. You’re dealing with players from the age of 21 to 26 so you’re dealing with men.
“The challenge he’s gonna face is shaking off a little bit of rust at a high pressure point of the season. In U Sport hockey, when you come out of the Christmas break, it’s a sprint to the finish line. You’ve got 12 games left before the playoffs and they’re jockeying for a first-round bye (six teams make the playoffs from each division) so every game matters and he’s stepping in at the height of it. It’s definitely a challenge for him but give him a game or two and he’s gonna get comfortable. He’s going to get acclimated to the speed, and he’s going to be just fine.”
Duda will have plenty of help. Aside from his friend, Grigorev, Duda will get on-ice attention from Brooks, who lives about 30 minutes away from TMU, and from Coyotes defensemen development coach Kurtis Foster, who lives in nearby Peterborough.
“I talk to Kurtis Foster approximately every week,” Duda said. “We have called Zoom calls or just a phone call and we discuss different stuff about hockey and my life. I talked with Brooksie and I asked him for some hockey drills for crossovers. These guys help me a lot and I really appreciate that. They do everything they can for me.”
Unlike the NCAA, U Sports allows NHL development staffs to get on the ice and work with prospects. That offers the Coyotes staff a chance to make up for lost time.
“Kurtis will be there. I’ll be there. [Skating coach] Lars [Hepso] will be there,” Brooks said. “It’s kind of like a collaboration; an opportunity for us to really be around a guy that we haven’t been able to be in quite some time so we’re pretty excited about it.”
Anybody who caught a glimpse of Duda in his one day at Coyotes development camp this summer already knows his greatest attribute.
“He’s an elite skater,” Brooks said. “He’s a heads-up player, too. Watching him in practice, he does everything with his head up. I think he’s got a really good IQ and he’s very, very agile on the offensive blue line as you’ve seen in some of his highlight reels. He also possesses a pro-level shot whether it’s off the pass or off the carry. I think he’s got a great foundation to build on to become an elite player in the future.”
The area of focus will be Duda’s game away from the puck.
“I believe my main weakness is tough play,” he said. “For a D-man, you need to be more aggressive.”
Coyotes director of player development Lee Stempniak elaborated on the approach that Foster will employ with Duda.
“Kurtis really does a great job teaching defensive fundamentals; teaching guys the nuances of how to defend and how to take a rush,” he said. “The thing with Artem is he’s a really strong skater, so taking the rush and pivoting and angling and all that stuff should come more naturally for him. I think a lot of it is just teaching him the style of play that we want with the Coyotes and how he can learn those nuances now that will help him smooth the transition and adapt more quickly, whether it’s in the AHL or the NHL.
“He just seems to have a really solid defensive IQ where he tends to get on the right side of people and stays between his man and can get people on his back and break the puck out. I think his skating and puck-moving ability will really help him limit his time defending.”
Duda just moved into a Toronto flat with two other teammates (not Grigorev) and is adapting to yet another change in his life. Going from tiny Orono (population 10,679) to Toronto has been a bit of a culture shock, and TMU is in the heart of the city so he is getting the full urban experience.
“Toronto is completely a hockey city; they love hockey,” he said. “Each boy here I think dreams to become a hockey player at some point.”
That has also been Duda’s dream since he was a boy. The Coyotes could sign their 2022 second-round pick (No. 36) as early as May when his contract in Russia is supposed to expire.
Duda admits that he has thought about the next step in his career, but given all that he has already endured in his brief North American foray, he doesn’t want his mind wandering anywhere but the present.
Top photo of Artem Duda at a TMU practice courtesy of Richard Coffey/49 Sports
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