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Crossing Paths Again

by Ben Raby / Dallas Stars

TORONTO- When the rookie defenseman from Texas arrived in Winnipeg to play for the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, it was obvious that the kid had plenty to learn. It wasn’t so much his hockey IQ that needed work but a lesson in ‘what to wear’ seemed necessary. The Winnipeg newbie was dressed like any 23-year-old from the South.

“I didn’t have those big winter jackets or anything,” said Dallas Stars prospect Trevor Ludwig after a Moose practice in Toronto. “I just had a little sweater thing.”

Enter the veteran of 21 pro hockey seasons, the captain of the Moose, and apparently the supplier of extra jackets, Mike Keane.

“Is that all you got?” the 41-year-old Keane asked upon greeting his new teammate. Ludwig, who grew up in Dallas, confirmed that it was.

“So the next day at the rink,” Ludwig said, “[Keane] brings me one of his jackets from when he was introduced to the NHLPA, and on the inside it says ‘Mike Keane 1988.’ So the jacket is 20 years-old, and I’m 23-years-old. ”

Sure, Keane and Ludwig are at different ends of the career spectrum, but their paths have crossed before.  When Keane first wore his NHLPA jacket as a rookie, Trevor’s father was among his teammates. Keane and Craig Ludwig played together with the Montreal Canadiens from 1988-90, before reuniting in Dallas at the 1998 trade deadline. One year later the two shared a Stanley Cup win with the Stars, 14-year-old Trevor there cheering them on.

“When my dad played with him in Dallas,” Trevor said, “I used to go into the [Stars dressing] room and that’s where I first got to know ‘Keaner’. He had a little more hair back then.”

The ’99 Cup was the third of Keane’s career, adding to wins in Montreal (1993) and Colorado (1996). Keane is one of just eight players to win a Cup with three different teams, and in 1995 he was named captain of the Canadiens. Not bad for a guy who was never even drafted. But more than 1,200 NHL games later, Keane continues to chug along, now in his fourth year back in the minors.

“I’m lucky to play in this league,” Keane said. “Only so many guys get to this level, so if I’m playing hockey and getting paid for it, I’m a lucky guy.

“It takes longer for me to recover after games, but I’m old and they’re not,” he said of his current teammates.

Seven of Keane’s Manitoba teammates weren’t even born when he played his first NHL game.

“I would assume he feels like a father figure,” Trevor said.  “He looks out for the younger guys, points us in the right direction and makes sure we’re not making the same mistakes that maybe he would have made when he was our age.”

Heck, even the Moose promotions team sees Keane as the old guy. His bobblehead is the only bald one and from the ‘we can’t make this stuff up department’ Keane was featured on posters promoting a recent ‘old timers’ night at Winnipeg’s MTS Arena. 

But at no time does this age thing hit more, than when Keane can look down the bench and see the son of a former teammate.

“It’s kind of come full circle,” Keane said, “but if you hang around long enough I guess you start to play with your former teammates’ kids.  I get some razzing about it, but it’s all fun.”

Trevor was the Stars sixth round selection (183rd overall) in the 2004 draft, coincidentally joining the organization he grew up around and one that Craig remains involved with as a broadcaster. Following his senior season at Providence College, Trevor signed his first pro contract last spring and has split this season between the Moose and the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads.   

“The minute [Stars General Manager] Les Jackson talked about him going [to Winnipeg],” Craig said in a phone interview, “I knew it was a great opportunity for my kid to learn from one of the best blue collar guys in the game.

“It doesn’t matter what position you play when you’re learning how to approach the pro game, and all the intangibles that come with it. Little things like work ethic and how to handle a loss - [Keane] can teach them. The bonus is that he’s been through the organization”

Craig had a blue collar reputation himself as one of the game’s best stay-at-home defensemen during his 17-year NHL career. Only once did Ludwig score more than five goals in a season, but he was a constant threat to block shots. His unusually large shin pads became famous for their durability stretching from the start of his career at the University of North Dakota through his final year in Dallas.

“We’ve got them framed up in our house,” Trevor said of his dad’s aging equipment, “but those things are a piece of a junk. They’ve got plastic and duct tape on them, you can’t even tell what brand they are anymore.”

Trevor says he never took shot-blocking lessons from dad and the consensus seems to be that the Ludwigs play different games.

“’Little Ludy’ has a little more offensive skill,” Keane said. “Craig was strictly a defensive defenseman who played physical. Ludy can move the puck real well.”

“He skates better,” Craig said, “and he can pass and shoot better. He doesn’t necessarily have as much of a physical side as maybe I did. He relies more on positional and skating strengths whereas I had to be physical to make up for the other skills I didn’t have.”

Craig is quick to point out that you don’t have score 50 goals to get noticed in the pro game and says Keane’s career is the perfect example.

“Hockey sense is very hard to teach, and he’s got it. Better players may come around, guys with more talent who can score, but coaches like guys they can trust to protect a one-goal lead or win a big faceoff.”

Keane has been trusted throughout his career, perfecting his role with little flash or pizzazz. It all sounds like that NHLPA jacket he lent to Trevor in the fall - an old and fading jacket, while better ones were likely available on the market. But at the end of the day as Trevor said, “it was a great jacket. It did the job.” Just like its owner has done for 21 years.

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