THE VERDICT: Duncan Keith, the Quintessential Hockey Player
In nearly 100 years of Blackhawks history, no player did his job better than future Hall of Famer Duncan Keith
Be prepared. When the National Hockey League releases its 2021-22 schedule, somewhere within there shall be a date to be circled, highlighted, remembered.
When the Edmonton Oilers skate onto the United Center ice, a future Hall of Famer is going to merit a standing room only ovation, probably during the pregame skate.
Duncan Keith deserves it, because nobody did his job better with the Blackhawks, ever. This Original Six franchise is approaching its 100th anniversary. Hundreds of individuals have come and gone, some for a cameo, others for an extended period. But not a one has brought honor to the sweater as comprehensively as Keith, who treated every shift on defense as though it was at once his first and his last.
Keith here was, and with the Oilers will remain, the quintessential hockey player. Talented, devoted, smart, creative, loyal, reliable, indefatigable, selfless and -- to steal Bobby Hull's description of Stan Mikita -- tougher than a night in jail. There was nothing Keith didn't do for the Blackhawks, except take a night off. He left everything out there on frozen pond, including his teeth.
"I had to work hard," Keith said. "I heard things along the way, when I was a kid. I was too small. 'How is he going to survive?' And once you get to the NHL, then it's about staying in the NHL. Once you get in the door, it didn't mean I could take a breath. Nothing beats hard work."
Keith broke in on Oct. 5, 2005, when the Blackhawks were broken, deep in the abyss of irrelevance. Chicago commuters wondered why are those nice young men in hockey jerseys hanging out at train stations when they never get on a train? Well, they were giving out free tickets to games. Please take a couple. Or maybe six?
Keith was rooming with fellow rookie Brent Seabrook. Keith, probably the less organized member of this odd couple, would spill his protein shakes on the carpet. Meanwhile, the punctilious Seabrook marched to a battalion of alarm clocks calibrated in such a fashion that he could not possibly be tardy for anything that day, or the next day.
A decade later, they were still inseparable, anchoring a blue line for the most dominant stretch in Blackhawks' history. Three Stanley Cup rings for each in 2010, 2013 and 2015. Keith leaves second only to Mikita with 1,192 games as a Blackhawk, not counting 135 in the playoffs, also behind only Mikita. Seabrook recently retired after 1,114 regular season games, third on the team's all-time list. That's a lot of protein shakes and a lot of alarm clocks.
"Every day I wake up thinking what I can do better," Keith offered. "I get the proper vegetables and fruits to feed my body, which is my temple."
That regimen, that work ethic, has served him well. Soon to turn 38, Keith admits to being obsessed with conditioning. He famously logs monster minutes while playing stout defense, as well as generating the rush. At the NHL's centennial celebration in 2017, Keith was cited among the 100 best players in history, an honor also bestowed upon teammates Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Keith was humbled, after he shed suspicions.
"I thought it was a prank," Keith recalled. "I got this phone call one day. A message from Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner. Maybe one of our guys trying to pull something on me. Maybe some fan who somehow got my number."
Voters knew his numbers. For 16 seasons, Keith brought a professional presence and sense of occasion to the Blackhawks. One of his most important goals occurred in Game 6 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final at the United Center. Keith converted his own rebound against Ben Bishop to create a 1-0 lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Blackhawks triumphed, 2-0, in the only game not separated by one goal to claim their third Cup in six years and first on home ice since 1938.
Typically, only the goalies and officials spent more time on the ice that series, and even without bagging the winner, Keith likely would have earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He added that keepsake to two Norris Trophies as best NHL defenseman in 2010 and 2014. Just three other Blackhawks -- Pierre Pilote, Doug Wilson and Chris Chelios -- were so honored. Last but not least for Keith, he twice was a stalwart for Team Canada toward gold medals in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.
Recently, with his hair growing along with his legacy, Keith seemed to resemble George Carlin, the legendary comic/philosopher known for quirky quotations such as "there are only three different kinds of people... those who can count and those who can't." Keith was all in on that type of dry whimsy. He could make everybody around him laugh while maintaining a straight face. During one exchange, Keith volunteered that Seabrook possessed certain "idiosyncrasies." When asked to delineate his, Keith responded with a blank look, "I don't know... what is an idiosyncrasy?"
Keith is an ardent believer that "a hungry wolf hunts best." Well, he's still chasing another Stanley Cup and this cyborg has many miles left in his skates. But he will do so with the Oilers. He resides in British Columbia and waived his no-trade clause to spend more precious moments with son Colton, 8, who might just be a chip off the old block. "He can be goofy," says Dad, rather proudly.
Duncan embraced Chicago and the Blackhawks. He was a bastion of stability in the locker room and a giver to the community with efforts such as Keith Relief, a fund to help those struggling with medical bills. He might have completed his career in the comfort of his adopted second home, but Colton comes first. That's what a father does, even if he's not a great hockey player.
So, circle that date, and if you're a bit late for the warmup because of traffic, rest assured that Duncan Keith will be out there playing more big minutes when it counts. This hungry wolf works for Edmonton now, but nobody hunted better for the Blackhawks than he did.