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The Verdict: Remembering Keith Magnuson

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

The following feature appeared in the December 2013 issue of Blackhawks Magazine. Pick up the newest issue of the magazine at the next Blackhawks home game, or by calling the Blackhawks Store at (800) GO-HAWKS.

Up the stairs he would charge, skates clanking against a hard floor, hockey stick along for the ride. Keith Magnuson, on his way to work, always seemed to be late, although he was usually early.

Then, upon completion of his trip from the locker room below to ice level at the grand old Stadium, Magnuson would take a right turn and break into a bladed sprint. Round and round he went, like his pants were on fire, carving circles into the ice.

From his first day as a defenseman trying to make the Blackhawks in 1969, whether to signal the start of practice or prior to a period in an actual game, Magnuson observed this up-tempo ritual while fellow players eased into the process via safety-first mode, which meant staying out of his way.

His way, you see, was perpetual motion. Nothing could stop Keith Magnuson until the end, and that occurred too soon. Alas, 10 years ago this December, he died in a tragic automobile accident outside Toronto. Chicago had lost one of its most popular athletes. The hockey world went into a state of shock.

“Not a day goes by when I don’t think of him,” said Cliff Koroll, Maggie’s best pal, a teammate at Denver University. Their arrival at training camp in Chicago proved to be transformational. The National Hockey League had grown to 12 franchises in 1967; the six new teams comprised the West Division. Albeit with a winning record in an East Division containing all Original Six franchises, the Blackhawks finished last in 1968-69 and were out of the playoffs. They needed a boost of energy, if not a personality transplant.

What ensued was history. The Blackhawks catapulted all the way from the basement to the penthouse in 1969-70, an unmatched worst-to-first revival. Clearly, the key component was Tony Esposito, a goalie acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for a mere $25,000 waiver fee. He authored 15 shutouts as the team shaved 76 goals — exactly one per game — from its previous season’s yield, on his way to building a Hall of Fame resume. But it was those other rookies, Magnuson and Koroll, who contributed mightily to the revival.

If Magnuson, the fiery redhead, had been ticketed for seasoning, he had an itinerary of his own. By exuding passion and dedication, Maggie earned a roster spot on the Blackhawks without spending a day in the minors. His enthusiasm was contagious —and uninterrupted. As a rookie, he accumulated a league-high 213 penalty minutes, winning a few battles and losing a few more. Point is, Maggie brought an edge with him: “He was tougher than a night in jail,” admired Bobby Hull. Not incidentally, Maggie and his “none against” mantra were effective. He compiled a +38 plus/minus rating in his debut on the blue line and was +170 for his career.

Maggie was not a world-class skater, and his shot — either for power or accuracy — did not flatter the man. But he established an instant presence, in uniform or on the bus, as evidenced by his smiling face on the April 6, 1970, cover of Sports Illustrated — a testimonial rarely accorded a freshman still in search of his initial goal. The picture showed Maggie missing a tooth. In many ways, he was a missing link for the Blackhawks. He oozed pride in wearing that sweater, and they were thrilled to have him as their unofficial spiritual leader. If we remember Maggie merely for leading with his fists, we are doing him a disservice.

Chemistry, then as well as now, was an integral part of the sports locker room, particularly so in hockey, the ultimate team sport. Maggie fit the role as surely as the gloves he frequently shed to protect one of his own. As a rookie, Maggie became a foil for veterans, but in a healthy way. Pat Stapleton and Bill White, to name only two, tormented him with bogus rumors. White joined the team past the midpoint of the season in a significant trade with the Los Angeles Kings, but he quickly caught on to the fact that Maggie could occasionally be “had.”

Many a time after practice, Stapleton and White would huddle to whisper. Maggie, always curious, would sidle over to them. Stapleton and White then broke off the dialogue and turned silent. Frustrated, Maggie would press the issue. Stapleton and White would express mock sadness, then come clean. Alas, they had heard from various sources that Maggie was going to be traded. Maggie’s jaw would drop. Stapleton and White somehow managed to keep straight faces.

In fact, Maggie never logged a game for any franchise except the Blackhawks until his body gave out; he played only three games in 1979-80 and was forced to retire. He served as one of the finest captains in franchise history, and in 1980, he became head coach of the Blackhawks. But despite his college education and extended success in the business world — Maggie was hired by a huge soft drink firm shortly after he arrived in Chicago — that nickname, “The Riddler,” stuck, at least during his playing career. One suspects that Maggie was a willing accomplice to some of the pranks at his expense. After all, he loved to laugh, even at himself. Still, Maggie had so many things going on and so many thoughts in his head that they tended to collide. Thus, he was known to embark on run-on sentences that lacked punctuation and defied diagramming.

You had to watch him take only a shift or two to realize a complete sense of selflessness. But he exhibited that trait in every phase of his existence, a life too short yet crammed with random acts of kindness. Fortunately, one of Maggie’s admirers did due diligence. Dr. Doug Feldmann, a professor at Northern Kentucky University, performed extensive research and conducted numerous interviews to produce “Keith Magnuson: The Inspiring Life and Times of a Beloved Blackhawk,” recently published by Triumph Books.

[Magnuson would] meet complete strangers, treat them like long-lost friends, not see them again for a long while, then still remember their name. A neighbor’s daughter is sick; he brings her meals and chicken soup for a couple weeks. And it’s not like Keith wasn’t busy. But he always made time for you. All heart. - Dr. Doug Feldmann, “Keith Magnuson: The Inspiring Life and Times of a Beloved Blackhawk

“As I went on and on in this project, I kept hearing the tales of how Keith reached out to the community,” said Dr. Feldmann, an accomplished author. “He’d meet complete strangers, treat them like long-lost friends, not see them again for a long while, then still remember their name. A neighbor’s daughter is sick; he brings her meals and chicken soup for a couple weeks. And it’s not like Keith wasn’t busy. But he always made time for you. All heart.

“Growing up in Algonquin, I became a fan when I was 9. I started listening to games just about when Pat Foley started as the Blackhawks’ great broadcaster. My parents thought I was sleeping. I had the transistor radio under my pillow. Keith was a family favorite. But the idea of doing this book didn’t hit me until I met his nephew, Mark, who is also in my field, education. That was in October 2003, only a couple months before Keith left us.”

A serial giver, Magnuson left behind a legacy that includes the Blackhawk Alumni Association, an organization he helped found and arguably the best of its kind in professional sports. It could have been an excuse for former players to sit around and muse about the old days over a few beers. Not so. The association has awarded more than $1 million in college scholarships, as Koroll, its president, has carried on the tradition of his fallen comrade.

Magnuson, a cherished member of the Blackhawks family, left behind a family he adored — his soulmate and wife, Cynthia, son, Kevin, and daughter, Molly. They gather with close friends every Dec. 15 to celebrate a special man with tears and smiles. Dr. Feldmann never met Keith, but like so many others, he knew of him. Dr. Feldmann was back home visiting Chicagoland before Christmas in 2003 when he heard the devastating news.

“I had to pay my respects,” he said. “I drove to the funeral home in Lake Forest. It was a cold, cold night, but there was a line of people outside, all the way around the block, waiting 30 or 40 minutes to make their way inside.

“As I stood there, I was taken by how nobody was complaining about freezing. They were exchanging stories about Keith, his fights, those great games in the old Stadium. But a lot of them probably had nothing to do with hockey. They just remembered what Keith was all about.”

On a Saturday morning not long after, Head Coach Brian Sutter and the entire Blackhawks team attended a packed church service, where Kevin managed to hold it together while talking about his father’s first Christmas in heaven.

Keith Magnuson scored 14 goals in his career. Yet he was instantly recognizable wherever he went, a reluctant celebrity. He wore No. 3, a number that previously belonged to Pierre Pilote, a Hall of Famer. Each has a jersey retirement banner displayed at the United Center. Maggie is not in the Hall of Fame, but he did not need to be bronzed to leave a mark. He just had to be himself.

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