usually gets nervous before he plays, but probably not like the butterflies he felt nine years ago in East Lansing, Mich.
That's because on Oct. 6, 2001, Keith began his college career at Michigan State. It was more than that for Keith, though. Before going on to win a Norris Trophy, Olympic gold medal and Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks defenseman had another big reason to be nervous.
His first game for Michigan State University came against arch-rival Michigan in a game dubbed "The Cold War," played in front of 75,000 people at Michigan State's Spartan Stadium. It was also an unseasonably cold night with temperatures in the low 30s, but Keith was feeling cold sweats before the game regardless.
"It was kind of a crazy way to start your college career," said Keith, who scored his first collegiate goal that night. "It was exciting, but I was just a young guy going in there. You better believe I was nervous."
That game, which finished in a 3-3 tie, set the stage for all the outdoor games played since -- both in the NHL and college. In fact, the Spartans and Wolverines will play a rematch Saturday night in Ann Arbor, Mich., at the sold-out, 110,000-seat Michigan Stadium. This game is being called "The Big Chill at the Big House," and it brings back fond memories of the "Cold War" for Keith, who will root for the Spartans on Saturday as he prepares to play the San Jose Sharks on the road that night.
"I remember how many people there were at that game and how exciting it was," he said. "It was definitely a different way to play a hockey game and I'll always remember it, that's for sure."
Keith also has great memories of playing in another outdoor rivalry game -- the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. The Hawks played the Detroit Red Wings at Chicago's Wrigley Field. Keith scored a goal in that game, too -- on a late power play -- but Detroit won, 6-4.
Keith said the two outdoor games were comparable, despite the Wrigley Field game being played in front of almost 30,000 fewer people.
"They were very similar as far as the rivalries, the game being outdoors, the weather being a factor and the ice about the same," Keith said. "Obviously the level of play was a little different. The players you were playing against (in the Winter Classic) were a lot better."
Yet, when you look at some of the players who skated in that "Cold War" game, it wasn't exactly semi-pro hockey. Ten players from that game have played in the NHL this season.
Aside from Keith, the Spartans had Adam Hall (Lightning), Andrew Hutchinson (Penguins), Jim Slater (Thrashers), John-Michael Liles (Avalanche) and Ryan Miller (Sabres). Michigan had Michael Cammalleri (Canadiens), Mike Komisarek (Maple Leafs), David Moss (Flames) and Eric Nystrom (Wild). All likely will be watching to see what happens Saturday in Ann Arbor, remembering what fun they had in the first game nine years ago.
"If there's one thing I could tell these guys, it's just to take a moment and soak it in," said Nystrom. "Try to realize what you're a part of and have a lot of fun while you're doing it."
He certainly did, even though some rainy weather the day before the game nearly ruined it. By the time the game rolled around, however, Nystrom remembers a great night for hockey.
"That morning it was a little iffy and the night before it was terrible weather," he said. "We couldn't even skate there. But when it was time to play, it was just a perfect night. It was also a great hockey game. A win would have been nice, but the night was just perfect."
It also was a gateway game that led to some other "perfect" moments for college and NHL outdoor games.
One of those other college games was played between Wisconsin and Ohio State on Feb. 11, 2006 at the Green Bay Packers' Lambeau Field. Former Wisconsin teammates Adam Burish, Jack Skille and Jake Dowell played in that one, which remains a special memory for all three native Wisconsinites.
Skille, a Blackhawks forward, remembers all the tailgaters grilling food outside the stadium before the game while wearing their warmest hunting gear. He also won't forget doing the "Lambeau Leap" into the crowd after the Badgers' 4-2 win.
"Being a big Packers fan and watching them do the 'Lambeau Leap' after every touchdown is a neat experience, but to do it yourself is just surreal," he said. "There's kind of a cement ground, like a warning track, there. So we all ruined our skates to jump over the wall. Our equipment guy wasn't too happy about it, but that was the coolest experience."
Dowell, also a Blackhawks forward, remembers the 40,890 who filled the crowd that day. That was big, but it'll be about 70,000 fewer than what's expected for Saturday's "Big Chill at the Big House."
Once you get those kinds of crowds, however, it doesn't really make a difference to the players on the ice.
"Whether it's 50,000 or 110,000, it's a lot of people either way," said Dowell. "And to be honest, a lot of them probably can't even see the ice at that point. They can't even see what you're doing out there. It's just a cool atmosphere to be a part of."
Burish, now a forward with the Dallas Stars, concurred. Like Keith, he also played with the Blackhawks in that Winter Classic game against Detroit.
"Anytime you get a chance to play outdoors, it's awesome," Burish said. "It's as much about the experience as it is about the game. You obviously want to win, but you want to enjoy yourselves and enjoy your surroundings, too."
Once he shook off the nerves, Keith was able to do just that in his first college game. That's when it became a lot more fun than nerve-wracking.
Keith was born in Winnipeg but lived in Fort Frances, Ont., until he was 14 and remembers playing pond hockey all day long -- stopping only for refreshments. Playing against Michigan in the "Cold War" brought it all back pretty vividly.
"It had been a long time since I'd skated outdoors, and getting to wheel around out there in Spartan Stadium was kind of like going back in time," Keith said. "It was a pretty neat feeling."
Author: Brian Hedger | NHL.com Correspondent