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The Verdict: Only The Beginning For Keith

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

He won an Olympic gold medal with Team Canada near his home in Vancouver, and he recently got engaged to his girlfriend since high school. He is one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy, and he has a contract that will last a lot longer than most Hollywood marriages.

So, this Duncan Keith guy must be on top of the world, right?

“Actually,” he corrects, “I really haven’t done anything yet.”

Such a striking case of self-effacement might puzzle folks like us who leave our dreams on the pillow every morning, but to those who mean the most to the Blackhawks’ 26-year-old defenseman, it merely constitutes a peek at a gearbox stuck on overdrive.

According to father Dave, on the horn from British Columbia, Duncan was none too pleased when he declared at age 6 that he would make it to the NHL, only to have a teacher chide him for refusing to formulate alternative career plans.

“Same with one of this teammate’s mothers, as I recall,” Dad goes on. “He said he was going to be a hockey player, and she laughed. He didn’t take too kindly to it. But Duncan always had that fierce determination. In his teens, buddies from the neighborhood would come by on a Friday night. Let’s have some fun, go to a movie. Nah, he wanted to shoot pucks. I talked to him the other day. He said when the season is over, hopefully in late June, he looks forward to coming home and us doing some fishing. I’ll believe it when I see it. Last summer, he was in the workout room, building up his strength, trying to get better.”

Should Duncan Keith win the Norris Trophy, he would be the fourth Blackhawk to be cited as the league’s best defenseman. Pierre Pilote, who is in the Hall of Fame, won consecutive honors in 1963, 1964 and 1965. Doug Wilson, who should be in the Hall of Fame, was honored in 1982. Chris Chelios, who will be in the Hall of Fame, earned the award in 1993 and 1996.

This edition’s two other finalists—Mike Green of the Washington Capitals and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings—are idle, their teams having been eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. But even though this is Chicago, this is not an aldermanic election. All votes are in as of regular season’s end and hermetically sealed until the winner is revealed June 23 during the NHL Awards Show in that hockey mecca, Las Vegas.

Tim Sassone, veteran beat reporter for the Daily Herald and chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, has done a bit of admittedly unscientific sampling among fellow journalists and believes that exit polls indicate significant support for Keith. Royalty in the person of Bobby Orr, who had no ballot, concurs.

“He was the best defenseman for Team Canada in the Winter Olympics,” notes Orr, who collected an unconscious eight straight Norris Trophies (1968 through 1975). “And he’s still a kid. You’ve got to figure his best is yet to come.”

That path would continue the trajectory for Keith, who was drafted by the Blackhawks in the second round and 54th overall in 2002. Certain souls at mission control were not enamored of the selection, for this lad toiling at Michigan State was relatively slight. But they’d been wrong before, and if you don’t believe that, you can look it up. Besides, Keith assimilated tepid reviews as motivation, as if he needed more logs on his fire.

In Norfolk, with the AHL Admirals farm club, Keith encountered Trent Yawney, a former NHL blue liner who would eventually also coach him with the Blackhawks and is currently a San Jose Sharks assistant. Keith lauds Yawney for nurturing him on how to be a professional, on and off the ice. Keith’s serve is returned.

“Tremendous passion…there was nothing he wasn’t going to do to get where he wanted to go,” Yawney says. “We used to joke among us there about one night seeing if we could play him all 60 minutes. He would have if we’d let him.”

Keith, as demure in conversation as he is charismatic in uniform, does not feign indifference toward the Norris Trophy. He knows all about the award and has studied the styles of previous winners such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Leetch and Raymond Bourque, all of whom generated offense from the back end by skating and passing. The same must be said for Pilote, Wilson, Chelios and the fluid, fleet Keith.

However,it is a long way from Saturday night’s Game One of round two at the United Center against the Vancouver Canucks to Las Vegas. Thus, when asked about the possibility of the ultimate hat trick—Olympic Gold Medal, Stanley Cup, Norris Trophy—Keith politely puts on the brakes, as if to circle for an opening.

“That would be unbelievable,” he says. “But so much has to happen first. The whole experience in February was great, winning it all for our country, a few hours drive from where my parents and I live. I’ll have those memories forever. But there’s also something to be said for going to battle with a group of guys like we have here in Chicago for eight or nine months. I don’t know how you would top that either. The Norris would be nice, but it’s individual and it’s something you don’t get to celebrate together. Yet it’s something you don’t often receive without being part of a good team and a good organization or playing with a guy like Brent Seabrook. You don’t see too many awards going to guys on last-place clubs.”

Duncan Keith signed a 13-year deal, not solely because of salary cap issues, but because the Blackhawks believe there is no expiration date on his work ethic. He promised doubters he would make it, and he did. But he also promised to go fishing this summer.

“In his spare time maybe,” concludes father Dave, chuckling now. “When he isn’t with his weights.”

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