Duke feeling the lockout burn

ROBIN BROWNLEE, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 12:05 PM ET

Sweden or Austria? Hard cap or soft? Filet mignon or New York strip? On one side of the NHL lockout, 30 owners stand behind Gary Bettman, who insists rinks stay padlocked until cost certainty is attained in a new collective bargaining agreement.

On the other, Bob Goodenow and the NHLPA are willing to sit out the season to preserve a free market. Goodenow's rank and file is united, even if one-third of it has taken jobs in Europe, with more soon to follow.

Caught in the middle of this staredown between wealthy players and wealthier owners who can't agree on how to split up a $2-billion business are working people who rely on the NHL for their livelihood.

People like Daryl Duke, a fitness consultant with the Edmonton Oilers the last 10 years.

While Bettman and Goodenow posture, and players, whose average salary reached $1.8 million last season, contemplate where, or if, they want to play, Duke's options are more limited.

Duke, 52, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1988. Four years ago, the cancer spread to his liver. Last month, just before Christmas, Duke was one of six Oilers employees told he'd be laid off Feb. 1.

What about him?

"I'm going to be scrambling. It's not fun," says Duke. "There was a bit of shock when I found out, but what are you going to do? You've got to roll with the punches and play the cards you're dealt."

KICK-BOXING CHAMP

Duke, a former world-ranked kick-boxing champion who owned the Panther Gym for 22 years before selling it five years ago to join the Oilers' staff full-time, doesn't matter in Bettman and Goodenow's foot-dragging scheme of things.

In that regard, he's no different than ushers, ticket-takers and parking lot attendants in cities around the NHL. And, with a salary of $50,000, Duke is the first to say he's better off financially than most of them.

Still, Duke, who's been working with the Edmonton Road Runners this season, will have to make ends meet when the cheques stop. When Duke isn't lining up clients as a personal trainer he's doing dishes and helping out at a fast-food outlet on Jasper Avenue owned by his wife. That's right - he's doing dishes.

"It's the least I can do," Duke says. "I might be doing a lot more of it. My wife won't let me take care of customers because I'm too slow, but I've got to cover my ass in case things go south.

"This (lockout) is having a domino effect, a trickle-down effect. It's hurting a lot of people. There are people way worse-off than me. My heart goes out to them."

Worse off than Duke?

Duke had been battling cancer for 12 years when he sold his gym back in January 2000 to concentrate on working with the Oilers. He seldom talked about it after the initial diagnosis, although those of us who hung around the place, as I did covering the boxing beat, knew about it.

Rumours circulated shortly after Duke joined the Oilers that the cancer had spread, but I never asked him about it. After watching him wear out players half his age in the gym these past several years, there didn't seem to be any need.

I thought, or hoped, he'd licked it.

"So did I. At least in my head I had," Duke says. "I hadn't been there (Cross Cancer Institute) for 10 years. I went back and they did an ultrasound. It had spread to my liver. There were a couple of tumours.

RELUCTANT TO DISCUSS IT

"The Oilers helped me through it. They knew what I was going through. The doctors talked to Kevin (Lowe) one day. He said, 'We should let the players know.' I said, 'No.' I didn't want to do that."

Even now, Duke remains reluctant to discuss the details of his health. He prefers to talk about his work, and what he's accomplished with the Oilers' AHL prospects this season.

"This is what I do. I enjoy it," he says. "It keeps me going, you know? It keeps my mind occupied.

"I have some days, if I miss my medication, when I'm pretty sick and I end up in the hospital.

"I've got 23 or 24 guys I'm dealing with and I feel I relate to them pretty well.

"It's been a very rewarding job. I'd like to keep doing it, but ... this has been stressful, but I just try to hope for the best."

So here we are.

While Bettman and Goodenow pose and procrastinate, Duke is up to his elbows in dishes. While players contemplate their options and make do with last year's model of Hummer, Duke will make the best of the two weeks he has left with the Road Runners.

"I've been in tough situations before," Duke says. "They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I've become a stronger person with the adversity I've dealt with. I've learned you've got to enjoy what you've got for as long as you've got it, to appreciate the little things."

So Duke rolls up his sleeves and goes to work, but Bettman and Goodenow can't be bothered to do likewise.

That's obscene beyond words. They should be ashamed of themselves.


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