85 Years of Blood, Sweat and Cheers: Keith Magnuson
In this edition of the "85 Years" series, Cliff Koroll remebers his lifelong friend and teammate Keith Magnuson.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of Keith Magnuson, but it might surprise you to know that my memories often don’t involve hockey.
Keith was my best friend. We grew up together in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and I knew him since we were 10 years old. We went to the University of Denver together, played college hockey together, played our whole pro career together and then he became head coach while I was an assistant. When we started our Blackhawk Alumni Association, he was president and I was vice president. So we were together for 46 years, always working together.
On November 17, 1926, the Chicago Black Hawks took the ice for the first time. 85 years later, the Blackhawks hold an important place in NHL history and Chicago sports.
In celebration of the Blackhawks’ 85th anniversary, Blackhawks Magazine and chicagoblackhawks.com will profile some of the greatest players to ever don the sweater, with essays written by the people who knew them best: teammates, rivals, broadcasters and other members of the NHL community.
Check chicagoblackhawks.com every Wednesday for another entry in the "85 Years" series.
Recent "85 Years" entries:
> Dirk Graham, by Troy Murray
> Jeremy Roenick, by Keith Tkachuk
> Pit Martin, by Dennis Hull
> Charlie Gardiner's career in photos
> Eric Nesterenko, by Ab McDonald
Even as a kid, Keith was tenacious. We played on different teams – hockey, baseball, football, you name it – and competed against each other all through high school. He was like a little fly – you’d swat him away, but he’d come right back at you. He was probably one of the most determined athletes that I ever played with; Keith didn’t have all the ability in the world, but he sure made up for it with hard work and desire. He played tough, stood up for his teammates, and that’s why he became a fan favorite and one of the best-loved players in the dressing room.
Both of us came out of college at a time when not many NHL players came from the collegiate ranks, so we were looked at a little differently when we came in. Keith proved himself by being a genuine person, a hard-working player, someone who stood up for his teammates. I think once he stood up for his teammates several times, he gained that respect within the locker room and fit in really well.
Keith always had a little bit of a mean streak. He didn’t fight much when we were kids because we weren’t allowed to. He couldn’t fight in college hockey because we weren’t allowed to—he got suspended a couple of times for that. But he felt that the way he was going to make it with the Blackhawks was not going to be on skill alone. He was a good defensive defenseman, but he didn’t contribute much offensively. So he needed another way.
When we were in school, he recognized the need on the Blackhawks for someone who could protect his teammates. There was certainly a need for that, with the stars they had at the time: Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Pit Martin, Jim Pappin and Dennis Hull. The Blackhawks needed some toughness on that team, and that’s what enabled him to make it.
The first preseason game that he played, he went up to the toughest guy on the opposition and tried to start a fight. He got his butt kicked, but Keith just kept coming after him. That incident showed that he was going to stand up for his teammates no matter what.
With his level of dedication to the team and to the Blackhawks, it was really only a matter of time before Keith became captain, and he was great at that, as well. When the opportunity presented itself, he was vocal. He’d stand up and single people out if he needed a little extra from them, but on a day-to-day, game-to-game basis, he was pretty low key with it. When things weren’t going right, he certainly didn’t hesitate to step up and say something and point out individuals as well.
When he couldn’t play anymore, he became the Blackhawks’ head coach and I joined his coaching staff. It was easy for both of us to work together because of the closeness that we had. We were closer than we were to our own brothers because we were together that much more, so we had a great working relationship. I understood fully what my role was as an assistant coach, and what his was as head coach. His was more the enforcer and I was there to support him as much as possible.
Thought it was easy for us to work together, it was a different situation in the locker room; one year we were playing with the guys, having a beer with them and socializing with them, and the next year we were their bosses and telling them not to have a few beers. So that was an uncomfortable situation for both of us to be in.
A lot of times, he would ask me to go with him to visit the kids in the hospital; he continually did that. He’s the kind of guy that never said no, and he’s touched so many people. He was able to balance his work life, his charity work and his family. I don’t know how he did as much as he did, but I think people remember him most for how much he gave back to the community.
But what I think Maggie would most want to be known for is the Blackhawk Alumni Association, which is his greatest lasting legacy with the Blackhawks. 25 years ago, there was a need to help players make the transition to life after hockey. Not all guys were fortunate as he and I were to get a college degree, so our model back then was “players helping players.”
There were eight of us at that meeting, including Stan Mikita and Dennis Hull, and there we put the wheels in motion. We started raising some money to provide for charity, and we decided that education was important because of what it did for Maggie and me. So we set up a scholarship program for high school hockey players in the state of Illinois. Keith was the president, and led the organization for the rest of his life. With the groundwork that the few of us laid, we have given out 78 scholarships and millions of dollars for high school education based on grades and community involvement, and that scholarship now bears Keith’s name.
That his number is now in the rafters at the United Center is a tribute to Maggie as a player, but even more so as a person. I think it’s a great credit to Maggie for the career he had, and I think a big part of it was what he did off the ice as an ambassador for the Blackhawks. On the ice he wasn’t the greatest player; he certainly served his purpose and showed his hard work and dedication. But it’s the off-ice stuff—how many people he touched, from little kids to senior citizens—that’s the thing most people remember about him.