As the Blackhawks embark on the annual Circus Trip, there is no elephant in their room. Duncan Keith has returned from an injury, sooner than anybody except him anticipated.
For a six-game tour in two countries, Chicago’s boys of winter pack accordingly. Wallet. Socks. Phone. Spinach juice. But on the subject of valuables, the presence of an all-world defenseman is something of a bonus.
It came as no surprise to the rest of the National Hockey League that Keith’s appearance, less than a month after knee surgery, coincided with a pair of weekend victories by the incumbent Stanley Cup champions.
The Blackhawks registered an edgy 4-2 conquest against the St. Louis Blues Saturday night, then followed with an efficient 4-1 dismissal of the Calgary Flames Sunday night. Keith, welcomed with open gloves, quarterbacked as if he had never left and settled things down in such a fashion that Head Coach Joel Quenneville almost forgot the last assignment Keith missed. Almost.
“That still bothers me,” confessed Q, referring to the Blackhawks’ tepid effort in losing 3-2 to the New Jersey Devils.
With Keith injected into the lineup, along with a healthy Michal Rozsival, the Blackhawks coaxed some jittery fans off the ledge as the familiar mid-November itinerary beckons. Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles. A blanket excursion through the Pacific Division, save for Arizona. On the same trip last year, carrying the exact 10-7-1 record they now own, the Blackhawks went 5-1-0.
No team in the NHL has endured more of a talent drain induced by the salary cap than the Blackhawks, and even a 10-game absence by Keith is bound to be felt. It was—because Keith’s presence on the blue line and on the bus provide comfort to all, including him.
Indeed, it’s not only how dearly the Blackhawks missed Keith, but how comprehensively Keith missed hockey. He seems to be a busy soul, not suited for enforced idleness. Can you imagine him sitting still? Standing still on crutches? Doing nothing?
“Actually, I can do nothing pretty well,” Keith said. “I did my rehab and then spent a lot of time hanging out and playing with my son, Colton. That was fun. It wasn’t so much that I was frustrated, because I was hurt. I had no choice but to get it fixed. I watched the games, and that gives you another perspective. But I’m glad to be back.”
Keith, 32, underwent surgery on Oct. 20 to repair a torn meniscus. A couple of pink scars on either side of his right knee are evidence.
“Like I said the other day, it’s not an amputation,” Keith went on. “I don’t remember exactly when I hurt it. It was in the Cup Final against Tampa, either in Game 3 or 4 here. I think I might have been hit, and then a guy fell on me. I thought it was OK during the summer, but then when I started playing again and skating hard, it acted up.”
Keith, of course, finished the Final in flamboyant style, earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player by unanimous vote. He dominated the series against the Lightning, scoring the winning goal on his own rebound in the clinching Game 6. He posted a gaudy +16 plus/minus rating in 23 playoff games.
All this from the 54th overall draft choice in 2002, when he was the 16th defenseman selected. It’s about that work ethic. As the story goes, Keith was 14 or so when father David thought it time for his son to investigate snagging a summer job. Duncan balked, insisting that would interfere with his training.
“Training for what?” David inquired.
“The NHL,” Duncan responded.
Keith does not deny that his fitness fetish accelerated his healing process. He played 27-plus minutes in St. Louis, 24-plus against Calgary and remains amused at everybody’s fascination about his workload. He eats those minutes as if they were a source of nourishment, but after three Stanley Cups and two Norris Trophies, he stays hungry.
Quenneville bestows high praise on Keith, tagging him simply “a freak.” Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated went with “The Cyborg.” We have offered that Keith is the one man who, were he a mail carrier, would take a walk on his day off. We also suspect he conserves energy by speaking in a hushed monotone, win or lose. When Keith retires at age 48, he could take that whisper to the booth and make a fine golf commentator.