What you are about to read is defined as Rookie Mistake 101. In his first week of his first season on defense for the Blackhawks—October, 1979—Keith Brown took Gordie Howe of the Hartford Whalers into the boards at the Stadium. Howe, having entered the NHL shortly after World War II, tended to lead with his elbows during such confrontations, and he wasn’t about to make an exception for this handsome, relatively unscarred lad who was drafted the previous spring as a 19-year-old amateur.
“Right in my face,” Brown recalls. “Elbow to the nose. I come out of the corner bleeding, he comes out of the corner and scores. Howe is the same age as my dad then, like 51. Naturally, I’m upset, so I start yapping. I yell at Howe, ‘I’m gonna get you!’ Finally, Greg Fox, who knew better, told me to go sit down on the bench and shut up. I’m already bleeding. Do I want to go back for more? Do I want to get hurt again? A good lesson.”
Brown learned quickly. He never did spend a day in the minor leagues, and enjoyed a fine career—14 years with the Blackhawks, two with the Florida Panthers—as a regular on the blue line, as well as in the gym. Back in the day, pumping iron was not considered imperative to a hockey player’s regimen. Too much muscle interfered with flexibility, or so the theory went. Teammates who shall remain nameless were known to relax between periods with a cigarette, while Brown was well ahead of the curve. He had virtually zero body fat, which annoyed us flaccid types who look good at the beach only when it’s dark.
“It was just a habit of mine,” says Brown. “I needed to keep my strength and weight. I wound up with seven knee surgeries, four major and three minor, despite all that training. It was definitely frowned upon, though. When Orval Tessier took over as coach (1982) and we had a few injuries, he would put a padlock on the weight room and exercise bikes. Now, it’s completely different. Players are bigger and faster and they’re all sculpted.”
Brown, who will sign autographs before and during the United Center visit by the high-flying Washington Capitals on Sunday, March 14, gladly toiled for the Blackhawks across the street at the Stadium, a building he raves about still. He also was a reliable soul, on and off the ice, who became an integral piece of a team chemistry that flourished during the 1980s.
"They’ve both exceeded their life expectancies, for which we are thankful. There’s a reason for everything and there’s a reason why we have been given these two special children." - Brown on daughters Christie and Kacie
“I would have played for nothing,” Brown says. “Our rink was unbelievable. Then there were the others: Montreal Forum. Maple Leaf Gardens. Boston Garden. Plus the guys we had. Stan Mikita’s last year was my first. I roomed with Maggie (Keith Magnuson) my first training camp. Then he retired. But I was around Denis Savard, who was special. Doug Wilson and Steve Larmer. How are they not in the Hall of Fame? That’s a joke. Of course, Tony-O. And Bob Murray, way underrated, never got his due. Look at Willie and Murph now. Both general managers.
“Fans were terrific. They would get on us occasionally. They used to boo Murph. Then I took three holding penalties against Pittsburgh and they started on me. Then it was Jack O’Callahan. I remember him coming to the bench one night. Fans were on him, and I turned to him and said, ‘Jack, thanks, buddy. I’ve passed you the baton.’ After Jack, there was Dave Manson. But the people cared, and I cherish the time in Chicago, same as I did when I was traded to Florida for a bag of pucks. Roger Neilson was coaching there. I learned a lot from him. Talk about a man who was ahead of his time. They called him Captain Video.”
Brown and wife Debbie live in Cumming, Ga. He’s a network analyst, plying his degree in computer engineering and pointing toward his Masters in international business. More significantly, he is a devout Christian. As a bachelor in Chicago, he says, “I didn’t know anything about religion and didn’t want to know.” But after marrying Debbie, Keith realized there was more to life. He would go play golf on Sunday mornings while Debbie and their first child, son Cody, went to church.
Some would say that Keith and Debbie’s faith has been tested. They would say, strengthened. Cody, 24, is doing fine. Katie, 23, is engaged. But daughters Christie, 19, and Kacie, 16, are confined to wheelchairs, victims of Leigh’s Disease, a rare neurometabolic disorder that affects the nervous system and beyond.
“They’ve both exceeded their life expectancies, for which we are thankful,” says Keith. “There’s a reason for everything and there’s a reason why we have been given these two special children. They can’t walk and they can’t talk, but they can laugh. Christie has to be fed through a tube, they both have trouble breathing. Christie is about 90 pounds, Kacie about 50. Too heavy for Debbie to lift anymore, so I’m home when I have to be.
“Every day with them is a gift. They wake up happy, they can’t wait to get on the bus to go to school. We take them for drives, we take them to dinner. People may look at us across a restaurant and feel sorry, feel pity, but it’s not like that at all. We worry like all parents with challenged children worry. We can give them all the love they need now, but what happens when we’re gone? We can only hope that if God takes one of them or both of them, that He takes them in their sleep. That they don’t suffer.
“Otherwise, we feel blessed. We thought we were going to lose Christie when she was about 10. One doctor told Debbie, ‘why don’t you just take her home and let her die?’ We don’t use that doctor anymore, but we see maybe 15 others. Still, Christie and Kacie are smiling most of the time. They have bad days, but love to be around people, and they have an inner beauty that a lot of healthy children might not have. Christie and Kacie are happy in their own way. They don’t know any other way.”
Indeed, spend ten minutes around youngsters like Christie and Kacie who aren’t as "perfect" as we are, and you ask yourself. Who exactly is handicapped, them or us?
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001. Check out The Verdict archive here.