From tiny Wadena, Saskatchewan, to the far corners of the hockey world, Keith Magnuson is remembered as the ultimate hard-nosed NHL competitor on the ice and good person and family man off the ice.
Magnuson, 56, died Dec. 15, 2003, in a three-car crash in a Toronto suburb while returning from the funeral of former NHL player Keith McCreary, the chairman of the NHL Alumni Association. Magnuson was a former chair of the association.
Magnuson worked hard to hone his skills in Wadena, a town of 1,500 north of Regina and 120 miles east of Saskatoon. He earned a scholarship to the University of Denver which he helped lead to two NCAA titles, played 11 seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, contesting two Stanley Cup Finals, and coached the Blackhawks for parts of two seasons.
"He had a heart of gold," Jim Wiste, who played with Magnuson at the University of Denver from 1966-68, told the Denver Post's Adrian Dater. "This is just really tough. Everybody loved 'Maggie.' He did more work for charities and for other guys who played the game than any man I've ever known. He was a warrior on the ice and a total gentleman off of it."
Jim DeMaria, the Blackhawks' former executive director of communications, worked closely with Magnuson in his role as the founder and president of the Chicago alumni association.
"Any time you needed something, you could call 'Maggy,'" DeMaria said. "He was the first guy in line to help any kind of charity you had. I mean, he was just that kind of person. And when the team wasn't doing real well, he was down in the room, talking to the coaches, telling the players, 'keep your chin up, keep working, things will turn around.' He was a real positive guy."
"It was always, 'What can I do for you, how can I help you?'" Blackhawks former head coach Denis Savard told the Chicago Tribune's Bob Foltman. "He was always positive, always happy. There's not too many human beings made that way."
"Off the ice, he was the mildest person you ever met," his cousin, Tom Magnuson, said. "We never saw him mad."
Colorado Avalanche coach Tony Granato grew up in suburban Chicago with Magnuson as one of his heroes.
"He left every ounce of his energy on the ice for the emblem on his sweater," said Granato, whose family organized a charity game in the Chicago area that Magnuson regularly participated in. "I grew up idolizing his work ethic. He was a great player and role model, and a very classy man."
Magnuson split quarterback duties at Aden Bowman Collegiate with Ralph Schoenfeld, who went on to play in the Canadian Football League. Schoenfeld, a longtime Saskatoon high-school teacher and coach, told the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix that Magnuson was driven to succeed.
"He had an insatiable desire to achieve his goals," Schoenfeld said. "Other people maybe doubted him. He never did."
Schoenfeld was amazed at Magnuson's seemingly split personality, a warrior on-ice but a concerned, helpful, gentle man away from the game.
"It was not within his character to be anything but generous. He was always modest, shy and understated. I don't know anyone who would have a negative thing to say about him," Schoenfeld said, before adding with a laugh, "except maybe the guys he beat up."
Magnuson was for many the very definition of the old-time hockey player. As a rookie with the Blackhawks, he used to ask veteran teammates who was the toughest player on the opposing team and then he'd fight them. Magnuson had 14 goals and 125 assists in 589 games from 1969-80 plus 1,442 penalty minutes. He provided great protection for smaller teammates.
Like Mark Messier, Magnuson openly urged opponents to have a quiet night or pay a heavy price.
"What he always did very, very well was set the tone early in the game," said his former Blackhawks coach Eddie Johnston. "He let the opposition know that when you dropped the puck in the game, 'This was what you were going to see, guys, for 60 minutes.'"
Murray Armstrong, 87, who coached the University of Denver from 1956-76 and won five national championships, told Dater that Magnuson was probably the easiest player he coached. Magnuson was a two-time, first-team All-American in 1968 and 1969. He was named the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's all-time best defenseman by The Hockey News in 1997.
"You never, ever worried about Keith being ready to play or doing the right things," Armstrong said. "He was our captain. He was the heart and soul of our team, and one of the most outstanding young men I ever had the privilege to be around. I respected him as an athlete and as a family man. I'm just devastated to hear what happened. My son told me, and my wife and I are crushed. Keith called me every year on my birthday, and sometimes a few times in between. He cared about his friends, but also about everybody. He was a very generous man, and we'll miss him terribly."
The Pioneers honored Magnuson on the weekend after his death by wearing No. 2 decals on their helmets -- Magnuson's number as a player at DU. During the Dec. 27-28 Denver Cup, DU players wore "K #2 M" patches on their sweaters.
"It's a sad day for DU hockey, more importantly for the Magnuson family," DU assistant athletic director and former NHL goalie Ron Grahame said at the time. Grahame entered the university a few months after Magnuson graduated in 1969. "In my mind, Keith Magnuson is the most recognizable name when you talk about University of Denver hockey. His contributions on the ice were important to the growth of the program, and just as important he stayed connected with the university after retiring from the NHL."
Fellow Saskatchewan native Cliff Koroll was a year ahead of Magnuson at Denver. He captained the Pioneers in 1968 and Magnuson succeeded him in 1969.
"We spent 45 years together," Koroll told the Toronto Star's Glen Colbourn. "Keith was a great man and I've lost a great, great friend. Keith didn't have the greatest hockey skills but he more than made up for it with hard work, his attitude, desire and dedication for the game. He had the biggest heart of any man I know, on and off the ice. We fought many battles together, most notably losing the Stanley Cup Final in 1971 (to Montreal)."
Shock turned to reflection Tuesday and Koroll recalled some of Magnuson's idiosyncracies, including his legendary forgetfulness that led to him writing notes to himself and preparing lists. That forgetfulness also led Magnuson to mess up the punch lines of jokes, which he loved to tell.
"He would always screw up the punch line of jokes, which was funnier than the jokes themselves," Koroll said. "That's why we gave him nickname 'The Riddler' in college. If you looked around his house, you'd see those lists. We roomed together in college and we used to mess with him all the time and shuffle his notes. We used to get a kick out of reading his notes, which were as simple as 'Wake up,' 'Wash face,' 'Comb hair,' and 'Brush teeth.'"
Armstrong recalled that he warned Magnuson not to forget an alumni function next year and Magnuson replied that he wouldn't because he'd already arranged for Koroll to remind him.
Magnuson worked as director of sales at Coca-Cola Enterprises in Chicago. He is survived by his wife, Cindy, his daughter, Molly, and son, Kevin, who played on the University of Michigan's NCAA championship team in 1998. Kevin played professionally for three years and is now a law student at Denver University.
Author: John McGourty | NHL.com Staff Writer