Keith Grows Into An Elite Defenseman
The Chicago Blackhawks' big-minute defenseman remembers that his parents never pushed him to be a lawyer or doctor, or anything else. The message was to find a career path he liked and go for it.
So, it wasn't surprising for a youngster in Fort Frances, Ontario, just across the border from frigid International Falls, Minn., to choose hockey. After all, everything was frozen around town for months.
"I'd like to say I got the athletic genes from my mom or dad, but I guess that comes from my grandpa, Wilf, who was a soccer player in England," Keith laughed, noting his dad, David, is a bank manager and his mom, Jean, is a nurse's aid. "As far back as I can remember, there was nothing other than hockey that I wanted for my career."
Even though Keith was a tiny kid, the diminutive youngster overlooked the barriers he faced and made it to the NHL. He's grateful to his parents for the figure skating classes when he was just a tot.
Experts will tell you that being so good at one part of the game often gives a kid the opportunity to catch up with the rest of the pre-requisites needed to play hockey at a high level.
To a layman, the first thing you notice about Duncan Keith is his speed. He parlays that skill into an enormous positive, being able to take a chance offensively and still recover to be back in position defensively.
"I'll never forget a play last year against Nashville where 'Dunc' was up the ice creating an offensive opportunity in a 4-on-4 situation in overtime and in an instant the play went back the other way," Blackhawks General Manager Dale Tallon said. "David Legwand, who has some of the best wheels in the NHL, was off ... and Keith gave him a head start and he still caught him before he could get off a shot at the other end of the rink."
Keith laughs at the description, saying that Legwand was at the end of his shift, although there's a fire in his eyes to indicate that he'd love nothing better than to get Legwand or another of the NHL's fastest skaters on a track to show off his own skating ability.
"With that speed, he was always a player we talked about in our pre-game meeting, making sure our guys were aware at how quickly he could jump up into the play and create a scoring chance," said Joel Quenneville, the new Blackhawks coach, remembering how he'd have to game-plan against Keith when Joel was coaching the Colorado Avalanche.
Edmonton Oilers Coach Craig MacTavish recently brought up Keith's name when several reporters were talking about players that might make their first trip to the Olympics when Vancouver hosts the Games in 2010.
"I love him," MacTavish said. "He was plus-30 last year on a team that didn't make the playoffs. He can really skate, he can defend. "To me, he's the prototypical NHL defenseman today."
And that's the story of Keith's rise to stardom.
"It may sound funny, but I remember checking almost every day to see if I had grown," Keith recalled. "I may have only been 5-3 when I was 14, but I had big plans. I knew I could skate. I knew I had talent."
No, nothing was going to stop this single-minded, self-motivated youngster. Not even getting cut from an all-star team when he was 15. That was just a small pothole on his road to success.
"That was just about the time I began to go through a growth spurt," Keith said. "I went from 5-3 to 5-6 at 14, 5-9 at 16, 5-11 at 17 and 6-foot at 19. For most of my life it always seemed like I was the smallest kid on the team."
"A guy like Duncan Keith is fearless," Blackhawks Assistant General Manager Rick Dudley told NHL.com. "He will go back and get the puck under duress. It used to be the bigger defenseman would have to hold up and you couldn't get a forecheck, but now, under the new rules, you need more character because you are going back with the threat of being hit almost all the time now.
"So whether you are a defenseman big or small, you have to have character and quick feet; and character is what Duncan Keith is all about."
Andy Murray, the coach in St. Louis, also has noticed the character that Keith shows on the ice.
"We keep hearing about how Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were responsible for creating the excitement about hockey in Chicago, but I think Duncan Keith should be credited with some of that success as well," Murray said. "He can lift the fans out of their seats with his skills. And don't forget all of those quality minutes he plays -- and plays so well."
The 25-year-old defenseman's minutes seem to increase each year, a valuable barometer of his worth. This year, he is playing more than 27 minutes a game -- Chris Pronger and Nicklas Lidstrom minutes.
Keith is also remarkably durable, having missed just one game in his five NHL seasons. He credits his work with weights for improving his size and plyometrics and speed sprints with making him leaner and faster. Thus, he has all the stamina he needs to play the kind of minutes the Blackhawks have given him the last few seasons.
Keith, who was a late bloomer because of his lack of height, came on fast after three seasons of Tier II hockey at Penticton in British Columbia and another season and a half of nondescript hockey at Michigan State. Still, the Blackhawks thought enough of him to select him 54th overall in the 2002 Entry Draft.
"When we drafted him, he was 5-11 and 160 pounds," Hawks GM Dale Tallon said. "Now, he's 6-0 and 190. That commitment to his growth physically and as a player shows me he has an unbelievable desire to get better."
He also possesses impressive versatility. Keith started out as a forward and made the successful switch to defense.,
"I liked defense right away -- getting the opportunity to control more of the game back there," Keith said. "I always believed in myself. All I needed was to find a way to make it."
"I wouldn't be here today without the help I got from Rob McLaughlin, my bantam coach, who helped improve (my) stride using plyometrics," Keith said. "I noticed improvements on the ice right after just a week with Rob. It was like I had gained an extra step or two that I didn't have before.
"The same was true when I went to Michigan State and Ron Mason taught me about systems and being responsible at both ends of the rink. Then, when I went to Norfolk (AHL) and played for (former NHL defenseman) Trent Yawney, he really taught me how to play the position -- the responsibilities I had in my own zone, how to match up with a speedy forward or a power forward and win the one-on-one battle.
"I'll never forget how nice it was to have somebody at that point in my career willing to take the time to teach me how to be better."
"He's got great skills. The kind you can't teach," Mason, the Michigan Sate coach, remembered.
After Keith began to play on defense full-time, he switched his idols from Paul Kariya and Pavel Bure to a mix of three of the greatest defensemen of the last few decades -- Bobby Orr, Brian Leetch and Nicklas Lidstrom.
"I've watched old tapes of Orr and, well, everything he did on defense, plus I liked how Leetch jumped up and anticipated the play to get open for a shooting lane or pass. And how can you not like Lidstrom's calm on the ice and the way he controls the play?" Duncan said. "Right now, I'd say I'm more of a puck-control defenseman. I'd rather try to make a pass and break it out, then go on the rush."
Author: Larry Wigge | NHL.com Columnist