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Duncan Keith: Never Standing Still

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
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Duncan Keith, the longest-tenured member of the Blackhawks, just completed a regular season that ranks among the best for a defenseman in franchise history. At age 30, he is building an imposing career resume, including two Stanley Cups in Chicago, two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada and the 2010 Norris Trophy as best defenseman in the National Hockey League. But, with many miles and minutes ahead, Keith never stands still, as he explained in a recent interview with Blackhawks Magazine.

You’ve had several good years, but a lot of really smart people in Chicago and around the NHL think this might be your best. You don’t enjoy talking about yourself, but do you agree?

I have high standards for myself. I put a lot of time and effort into the offseason, as short as it was after we won the Cup in late June. I worked on keeping my body ready when we weren’t playing and have spent a lot of time focusing on the job when we are playing. It’s not a matter of just strapping on the gear, putting on your skates and relying on your ability to get it done. You have to find another level.

Those of us who watch you night in and night out wonder: When have you not put the time in?

Well, I’ve always put time in, but that’s what I mean about getting to another level. I’ve spent a lot more time this year on visualization — the mental part of the game. It’s nothing new, but whatever you do, you can always use your mind to be better. In my case, I visualize so I can be better prepared to play a hockey game.

Tiger Woods won the 1994 Masters by 12 strokes, then changed his swing for the same reason — to get even better. Exactly what do you visualize?

Situations on the ice. We all visualize scoring the big goal or whatever. But I try to actually take time out during the day to visualize different situations, how to play defense if this or that arises.

Are we talking meditation?

I guess you could call it a form of meditation. I work with our mental skills coach, Jim Gary. To perform, you have to prepare. It’s just another part of being the best you can be, like working out in the gym. Just looking for an edge.

What do you do? Do you take a few minutes every day and tell your wife, Kelly-Rae, that you’re going off into a quiet, dark corner to visualize?

Now you’re making it sound really weird. It’s not that weird at all. Whether it’s before or after a game, or even laying in bed at night, you think about things that you could do. We had a short summer, we had the Olympic experience, and we’re trying to win it all again. You want to be strong, mentally and physically. I want to stay hungry.

Evidently the chances of you being satisfied, even after all you’ve accomplished, are slim.

The years go by fast. The games go by fast. I love hockey. I love challenges. I want to be part of an elite team that wins several Cups.

Do you ever let yourself go? Do you ever allow yourself to eat junk food?

Oh, for a couple weeks after the season, I let the body rest. I don’t do much. As for my eating habits, I probably eat worse than you would think. I’m very lucky with my metabolism. That must be it, my metabolism. I like hot dogs. I like pizza. I like cheeseburgers. But I’ve always been lean, and I train hard. When it comes time to actually play, I try to eat right. But you always take time for a pizza break.

Have you gotten the last laugh on people who said you were too small to make it in the NHL?

Oh, I don’t know that anyone ever really told me to think about doing something else. I think it’s only natural, being a small kid, that some people figured I wasn’t big enough. I kind of use that as my own motivation.

Has becoming a father added to your motivation?

Yeah, I have some nice pictures from taking my little guy, Colton, out on the ice before our Soldier Field game. You see the smile on his face and you want him to enjoy some of the things you’ve enjoyed in your life, even though he’s going to be his own person. Whatever makes him happy makes me happy. But he’s only 1 — he was born during the playoffs last spring [in the Minnesota series]. Whenever he’s out there on skates, me holding onto him, gliding him around, I think he likes speed and going fast.

You’re motivated beyond hockey. Talk about your foundation, Keith Relief.

I’ve been around here for a while, and I wanted to do something to give back to the people in Chicago and Illinois. I got connected with Ronald McDonald House Charities, and I’m honored to be partnered up with them. Classy organization that’s helped a lot of people. Basically, Kelly-Rae and I decided to provide assistance to families in need because of a medical crisis. The health care system back home in Canada is different than it is here. People who have two kicks in the stomach — you’re in the hospital because you’re not feeling well, then you get the bills — those are the people we want to help. We’ve raised some pretty good money.

As a Canadian, did you ever imagine you could play in an American city so passionate about your national sport?

This is my second home. Almost my first, in many ways. We spend most of our time here. And Chicago is an amazing place. We’ve talked before about how, when I first came here in 2005, the building was half empty, and I could sit in the stands if I wasn’t dressed for an exhibition game without being recognized. This is such a great sports city, and to be part of it is cool. When you first come here, you look around and hope for the best. Then we started to have some success as a team, but we’re still young, and we want to do more.

Your priorities have changed?

When you get drafted, you just want to play in the NHL and the rest of it is gravy. You try to be realistic. But after you play and win, you want to keep winning. You want to play in June. I’m 30, but don’t they say that defensemen play their best in their 30s? I feel like I’ve got a long way to go. And if you aren’t getting better, you’re getting worse, right?

What do you do away from the rink?

Spend time with the family, of course — Kelly-Rae and Colton. I don’t watch much TV, except for hockey. I like animals. We have two dogs, a black Lab and a chocolate Lab. They’re best friends. I can let loose, though. Ask the guys in the room if I can let loose. But I pick my spots.

Brent Seabrook?

My defense partner? We’ve been together for so long, it seems. We lived together our first year, right across from the Lincoln Park Zoo. We could walk to downtown restaurants. We were probably the youngest guys on the team. Feels like yesterday, but it’s really a long time ago. Great roommate, great guy. You couldn’t ask for a better man. He’s been a big part of my career here.

You always look back at your supporting cast. Who do you thank the most?

My parents, obviously. They never pushed me, but they backed me. I had some great coaches. When I was still really young, I switched from being a forward to a defenseman, and I had a lot of great help along the way. Gib and Bill Tucker at Fort Frances (Ontario) as a Peewee. Rob McLaughlin in Penticton (B.C.). I learned a lot from Trent Yawney in the minors at Norfolk. He took me aside and taught me how to use my body, my stick — the proper way to play. I learned a lot in my time at Michigan State under Ron Mason and Rick Comley. You’ve gotta get lucky with coaches, too, to play for guys who believe in you. And I’ve been fortunate.

You have a bazooka for a shot, and you pile up a lot of assists. Is offense important to you?

The shot, sometimes they go in, sometimes not. We try to work well with our forwards, but of course our main job is to keep the puck out of our end and our net. We have a great defense corps for creating plays and getting the puck to our forwards. That’s a big part of our team. The quicker we break out, the better. Defensemen talk a lot about having a good gap. You’re up on the play and it ends up creating offense. Loose pucks come to you, you can keep the puck in the zone better, and hopefully you find shooting lanes. [Opposing] forwards do a good job of blocking shots; with the equipment now, they don’t feel the shots as much as they used to. But if you just hit the net, even if the puck doesn’t go in, it can create chaos.

What would another Norris Trophy mean to you?

That would be nice, but I haven’t won it yet and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. This organization has had some great players over the years. I know Chris Chelios, who won the Norris here. I have a lot of respect for him and Pierre Pilote and Doug Wilson. I’ve studied up a little bit on their history. Great defensemen, all of them. And Bobby Orr, who won eight straight Norris Trophies. He played with the Blackhawks too.

Any particular defensemen you admire?

The years go by fast. The games go by fast. I love hockey. I love challenges. I want to be part of an elite team that wins several Stanley Cups.Duncan Keith

Rob Blake, Ray Bourque, Brian Leetch. So many of them. Paul Coffey. List goes on and on. At the 2010 Olympics, I got to play with Scott Niedermayer. Once I got to the NHL, I really started to watch Nicklas Lidstrom. We played Detroit a lot, and the more you saw of him, the more you appreciated how he played. Never the flashiest guy, never tried to beat guys one-on-one. But he played simple and smart and made everybody around him better.

Do you make players around you better?

Hope so. I’m trying.

You’re a glutton for minutes. Do you ever get tired?

Well, this year took a toll. Playing in the Olympics was fun, but with that, the regular NHL schedule is kind of condensed. Coach Q gives us time to rest, though. He’s really good at that.

You average around 25 minutes per game. If you played 5 fewer minutes, would you be even better?

Oh, I don’t know. Five minutes is quite a bit. If you miss a shift or two, that’s no big deal. But I feel like I play the best when I play a lot. Penalty killing, power plays, whatever. I like to compete. And good defense is not just one guy or one pairing. And it’s not one forward line. It’s a team thing.

To quote you, “It is better to live one day as a lion than a thousand days as a lamb.” In a Scottish brogue, you mentioned that at the Stanley Cup parade last June. In 2010, you said it was the best time of your life and asked if anybody in the crowd of 2 million knew a good dentist. That was after you lost seven teeth in the playoffs. You’re getting good at public speaking. Any plans?

I’d like to have another chance this June. Maybe I could get the crowd chanting. All of them, chanting. That would be nice. But first we have to get there.

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