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The Verdict: On and off ice, Magnuson became a Chicago icon

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
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On Monday night, before the Blackhawks play the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, lines will be long outside the United Center. It’s always that way for a giveaway promotion, and for fans who remember, snagging one of 10,000 Keith Magnuson bobbleheads will be special.

The only thing missing, besides this man who gave of himself, would be batteries. From the moment he arrived at the Stadium for training camp in 1969, fresh out of the University of Denver, Magnuson exuded energy and passion.

The Blackhawks had finished last the previous season, were a bit stale and in need of an attitude adjustment. Along with a college teammate, Cliff Koroll, and Tony Esposito, a goalie prospect stolen from the Montreal Canadiens, Magnuson brought electricity into the locker room. He was modestly gifted, but a serial trier. When he first climbed the stairs to ice level and began his ritual of skating briskly around in tight circles, veterans thought he was quite possibly daft, or at least out to impress Coach Billy Reay.

But that was Maggie, and in time it was obvious that he would do anything or give anything to win a hockey game. You saw that recent Sports Illustrated cover story on the Blackhawks? Maggie was on the front of the magazine all by himself in his rookie season, a winter during which he scored zero goals, had 24 assists and spent 214 minutes in the penalty box. Why him, smiling with most of his teeth in place? Because he made a difference, and everybody in the National Hockey League knew it. The Blackhawks went from last to first with that fiery redhead, No. 3, as spiritual leader.

As we look back, Keith Magnuson was not only a transformational figure for the franchise, but also his sport.

“He changed the landscape,” said Peter McNab, who followed Magnuson to Denver, had an excellent NHL career and now works on Colorado Avalanche broadcasts. “Look at the drafts in this league before Maggie went to Chicago. College players were considered soft. To grow up tough, to be a real man, you had to leave home early and play junior hockey in Canada, not college.

“Then Maggie made it with the Blackhawks, without spending a day in the minors, and the whole perception of the American college player shifted. More and more guys like me got picked higher and higher in subsequent drafts. Obviously, Maggie wasn’t soft. He was everything you wanted in a hockey player and a person. And every year, after the Blackhawks were done, he came out to Denver and took our whole squad to dinner. He was a god to us.”

And to the Blackhawks, he was like glue. Team chemistry was not a catchphrase in those days, but Magnuson exemplified it. Standbys such as Pat Stapleton tormented him with pranks and trade rumors. They pounced on his run-on sentences; he was named “The Riddler” for good reason. But Maggie was beloved, and respected. He became the Blackhawks’ captain, then coach. He became a successful businessman. He became an icon in this city, without his skates.

When Keith Magnuson died in an automobile crash on Dec. 15, 2003, Chicago was crushed. Yes, there will be lines of people outside the United Center Monday night. But nothing like the droves of admirers shivering outside that funeral home in Lake Forest, Ill., hundreds whom he touched with random acts of kindness. Many were hockey fans, season ticketholders. Many more, however, were not. He left behind a magnificent wife, Cindy, and two terrific children, Molly and Kevin. Keith Magnuson also left behind a legacy of decency. At the church service, the idea was to celebrate the way he spread joy, but it was a struggle, especially when Kevin spoke about his father’s first Christmas in heaven.

Because he cared, Maggie was a prime mover in creating the Blackhawk Alumni Association. Skeptics thought it a nice idea, a fine excuse for former players to gather over a few beers and mull the good old days. Not the case. Now, a quarter-century later, the Association has topped the $1 million mark in awarding college scholarships. You can look it up. You cannot, however, document the dozens of visits he made to hospitals, youth groups, charitable causes. These were not photo ops. Maggie went where his heart took him, not where the cameras rolled.

There is a banner hanging from the United Center roof bearing the No. 3 that Maggie wore after Pierre Pilote, a Hall of Famer. In 11 seasons, Maggie scored 14 goals, not counting a couple he unwittingly deflected past Tony O. Maggie is not in the Hall of Fame. It’s very crowded there. Keith Magnuson was a one-of-a-kind human being who happened to play hockey.

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