Duncan Keith: Work Harder, Play Harder
The longest-tenured Blackhawk sits down with Bob Verdi
The following feature appeared in the January 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.
Two and a half years removed from a dream season that saw him earn Olympic gold, the Norris Trophy and the Stanley Cup, Duncan Keith, the longest-tenured Blackhawk — and resident fitness freak — has a simple plan to get himself and his team back to the pinnacle…
How does it feel to be the father figure in the locker room when you’re not even 30?
Well, I’m not the oldest guy on our team, but I guess I have been around longer than anyone else on the team. It’s happened so quickly. I still feel like I’m young, but I also feel like a veteran. I guess I feel I’m both. Somewhere in between.
When you broke into the NHL in 2005, who helped you learn the ropes with the Blackhawks?
We had a close team with a lot of character guys. Adrian Aucoin, Jim Dowd, Marty Lapointe. They showed me the way, how to be a professional. Being in the NHL is a privilege, and to stay here, you have to have discipline and know how to carry yourself. I watched them, how they went about their job. I was also fortunate to have Trent Yawney as a coach, first in Norfolk with the minor league team and then with the Blackhawks. He was very patient. I could tell that he cared and wanted to see me succeed.
And when you made mistakes as a rookie, you did so in an intimate setting, correct?
It was nothing like it is now, that’s for sure. If you didn’t suit up for an exhibition game at the United Center, you could sit in the stands and watch. Nobody would bother you. Nobody would know you. Now there aren’t any seats to sit in, which is nice.
What players did you study as a kid?
I grew up watching the Vancouver Canucks. I was born in Winnipeg, but my dad, Dave, was transferred to Ontario right away, and then we moved again to British Columbia. I always liked the guys who could really skate, like Pavel Bure. When I started playing, that was one of my greatest assets, so I sort of grew up with that mentality. If you can skate, you can have a role.
Were you always a defenseman?
No, I was a forward until I was 10 or so. My dad wanted me to be a forward. If you ask him now, he’ll probably say he still wishes I was a forward. But I liked the view from the back end. I liked the idea of getting the puck to my forwards and trying to be sort of a quarterback. I also took a lot of pride in preventing the other team from scoring, and still do.
Did your parents make the usual sacrifices for your hockey?
Absolutely. Dad was a bank manager, a hard worker. My mom, Jean, was a nurse’s aide. She would drop me off at the rink at 6 in the morning, I would show off a little for her, then she went off to work a lot of hours. They were very supportive, and I was very determined. I decided I wanted to be in the NHL at an early age, and I knew I would find a way.
Never a doubt?
Not on my part. Off the top of my head, I would say some people doubted me because of my size. I was too small. That bothered me a little bit, but that’s what’s great about sports. Everybody has opinions, and it’s best to not get too upset and do your thing.
Why Michigan State?
That was a big step for me, a fork in the road. You leave home and have a chance to develop. I liked the environment, too. Midwestern people are a lot like Canadians. Friendly, courteous, like to have fun, humble. They’re hard-working people who let their actions speak for them and don’t get too wrapped up in themselves. I see a lot of those qualities in people around Chicago, where my wife, Kelly-Rae, and I have made a lot of friends outside hockey.
You really have become part of the community in Chicago.
It’s a great place with great fans, and we consider it home. We live in British Columbia during the summer, but when we leave for the hockey season, it’s not like we’re leaving home. We’re going home, to Chicago.
Where you have established a charity, Keith Relief, to assist those with financial and emotional burdens from medical crises.
My wife is a very caring person, and she is dedicated to helping people secure proper health care. We had a big fundraising event last year, and we’ll keep doing it. We donated a bunch of money to the Ronald McDonald House for children who need assistance.
You are a bit of a health nut yourself, aren’t you?
I was still pretty light, even at the end of my draft year. Maybe 165 pounds. I had to get stronger and bigger, and I try to keep at it. I played at 200 last year, and now that I’m getting older, I’m thinking maybe I’m better at 195. I don’t have much body fat, and both my wife and I are careful about what we eat. We’re big on nutrition.
Don’t you ever let go?
One day a week maybe. On a Saturday, I might have some cupcakes. I don’t make it an all-day event, though. And it’s not like if we go over to somebody’s house for dinner, we won’t eat what they prepare because it’s not completely healthy.
You had a dream season in 2009-10. The Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup, you won a gold medal with Canada at the Winter Olympics in your backyard, and you won the Norris Trophy as best defenseman in the NHL. How do you avoid being satisfied? How do you top that?
You win another Cup. I certainly don’t look at it and think there is nothing left to do after a year like that. What it does is make you want to win again. There is no experience that matches the feeling you get when you win a championship. It’s everybody. It’s the coaches, the trainers, the guys who play six minutes, the healthy scratches. There’s nothing to equal that, and when you have a taste of it, you don’t want to stop there.
To Blackhawks fans who are disappointed that the team has been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round for two straight years, what would you say?
I would say, we’re disappointed too. I said something the year after the Cup about how it was hard to see eight or nine guys leave our team. That goes back to what I was saying before, about the chemistry you develop with a group. But I understand what happened was because of the salary cap, and that’s no excuse. It’s business. We can only control what we can control, and we just have to be better, work harder, play harder. There is such a fine line between winning and losing.
Speaking of which, the Los Angeles Kings slipped into the playoffs as the eighth seed and won the Cup.
Well, they had a good team and a really good second half. But there are a lot of good teams, and only one really ends the season happy. Which is no excuse, either. You can’t get eliminated and say to yourself, well, only one team is going to wind up a winner. But, again, there are a lot of good teams and we are one of them. I would hope our fans feel that way about us, because we do.
What about your buddy and sidekick, Brent Seabrook?
I love playing with him, that’s for sure. I’ve always been paired with a bigger, stronger guy, and he fits that. He has helped my game, and hopefully I’ve been able to help his. He complements my style, which is skating and speed. I don’t hesitate to move the puck, because I know he’ll always be back. Meanwhile, he has a lot of offensive ability and a strong shot and good anticipation for when to create offense himself. Off the ice, we have a lot of fun and are very close. I believe the more fun you have off the ice, the better you will be on the ice. The most fun is winning, of course, but having a bunch of guys who get along like we all do helps. We really care about each other.
You and Seabs could be a pairing for the next 10 years.
That would be great. I don’t want to get too far ahead of things, but I have more years left on my contract than I’ve already played, and if I can do it all in Chicago with him, I would love that. He says when he plays with someone else for a while, like Nick Leddy, he doesn’t get yelled at as much as when I play with him. I call it communication. Seabs is my friend, and I’m just communicating.