Duncan Keith’s parents always knew he was highly motivated, but there is this indelible snapshot that stands out from his childhood.
“We looked out at our backyard one day, and Duncan had two or three tires strapped to his waist, climbing uphill,” his mother, Jean, said. “And he was only about 15. He had this bent for fitness and nutrition.”
“In Grade 4, he had a teacher, Mr. Ron Grabowski,” his father, Dave, said. “Duncan wanted to become a hockey player, and Mr. Grabowski talked to Duncan about what he would do if that didn’t happen. You know, did Duncan have a plan B? Well, Duncan was devastated. Cried for two days because he thought Mr. Grabowski meant he wasn’t going to be a hockey player. Mr. Grabowski was just doing his job, but Duncan didn’t want to hear it. I once suggested he find a summer job. He informed me that would interfere with his training. Duncan was driven.”
Selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round (No. 54) of the 2002 NHL draft, Duncan Keith joined them in 2005 and never looked back. The franchise was struggling then, but Keith matured into a fixture on defense with a young roster that forged a modern dynasty, winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015. Along the way, Keith earned the Norris Trophy in 2010 and 2014, plus the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the 2015 playoffs.
When he wasn’t the quarterback on Chicago’s blue line, Keith’s two-way excellence and zeal for a heavy workload served his country well. He won a gold medal with Canada at both the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Olympics. But only those who surmised that Keith was too small to realize his dream were surprised. He decided when he was 8 or 9 where he was headed. Take the piece of paper Dave and Jean discovered one day, a fearless forecast their son authored in a felt-tip pen: “Duncan Keith will make it to the NHL.”
Among the early believers, count Rob McLaughlin, who was coaching bantams in Penticton, British Columbia, when the Keith family moved there from Fort Frances, Ontario.
“We heard about this big new defenseman coming to town,” McLaughlin said. “Then this tiny kid shows up. He was 5-foot-4, 117 pounds. Skinny, short. Then, I watched him play and was blown away. A fabulous skater with a tremendous hockey IQ. Duncan not only controlled the game, but his work ethic rubbed off on other kids. He was a quiet leader. [When] practice or the game ended, he would be out shooting pucks like crazy. He had been told he was too small. And he was going to prove everybody wrong.”
Keith attended Michigan State University, then as a sophomore switched to Kelowna of the Western Hockey League. Upon signing with the Blackhawks, he played two seasons with their American Hockey League farm club, Norfolk, from 2003-05. There, Keith credited coach Trent Yawney, a former NHL defenseman, with mentoring him on the ways of a professional. Yawney fantasized that, one day, Keith might actually want to play an entire game, 60 minutes. When Keith showed up at Chicago’s training camp in 2005, a year after his trajectory was delayed by a canceled NHL season, hockey’s profile in one of its Original Six cities had dipped precipitously.
“The team was down and so were the crowds,” Keith said. “If I wasn’t dressed for an exhibition game, I could sit in the stands and have a whole area to myself. It’s great to see how things changed.”
Indeed, the revival of the Blackhawks was seismic. Although still in his mid-20s, Keith soon stood as a tenured leader beside such prodigies as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Keith and his customary partner, Brent Seabrook, emerged as one of the league’s most effective and durable tandems. Keith in particular thrived under coach Joel Quenneville, who took over early in the 2008-09 season and espoused an upbeat, puck-possession style. Keith finished the season with 44 points and a plus-33 rating.
The Blackhawks were poised to take the next step. It has been posited that had Keith been a mailman, he’s the one who would have taken a walk on his day off. When he’s on the treadmill, it’s the treadmill that wears out first; on the grueling VO2 max test, Keith scores off the charts. But besides his superior conditioning, there is passion and grit.
In Game 4 of the 2010 Western Conference Final, a puck careened off the stick of San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau. Keith took the brunt of the blow in the mouth, losing seven teeth – three on the top, four on the bottom. He adjourned for repairs and returned to play 12 minutes in the third period and a game-high 29:02. He blocked five shots, and the Blackhawks swept the series and went on to win the Cup for the first time since 1961. Keith capped his season by becoming the fourth Blackhawks player to win the Norris as the League’s best defenseman (Pierre Pilote 1963-65; Doug Wilson 1982; Chris Chelios 1993, ‘96). Keith won the Norris Trophy for the second time in 2014.
Keith starred on all three of his championship teams with the Blackhawks, but his performance throughout the 23-game postseason run in 2015 stood apart. He averaged 31:07 of ice time per game during a two-month marathon that included five overtime games. One of them – Game 2 of the Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks, a 3-2 Chicago victory – became the longest in franchise history at 116:12, of which Keith played 49:51.
In that year’s playoff opener on the road against the Nashville Predators, Keith scored the winning goal in a 4-3 double-overtime victory after the Blackhawks had fallen behind 3-0 in the first period. Then in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, Keith fired a drive on Ben Bishop, the towering goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Bishop shunted it with his pad, but because he is forever in motion, Keith followed his shot, gathered the rebound and deposited the puck into the net, breaking a 0-0 tie. That goal was the winner in a 2-0 victory that brought the Blackhawks their third Stanley Cup championship in six seasons. It was Keith’s third goal of that postseason, all of them game-winners.
“You want to keep being a part of these things, because they never get old,” Keith said upon receiving the Conn Smythe Trophy. “You don’t get awards like this without being on great teams with great players.”
Well after Keith’s bravura postseason performance, it was revealed that he had played with a torn meniscus in his right knee. Keith said that he sustained the injury during the Final against Tampa Bay – he wasn’t certain whether it was in Game 3 or 4, but who was counting? One thing was for sure: Keith would not seek a doctor’s note or sympathy until he finished his hockey business. He had all summer to heal.
As it turned out, Keith still ailed when the 2015-16 season began. At first, he ascribed the problem to the usual “nicks and bruises and pains” one incurs during a career. When the knee still bothered him in training camp, he took a few weeks off starting in October, and would have surgery that month. By then, Keith had received yet more championship jewelry. Quenneville said he was unaware of Keith’s wound. Is there any wonder why Quenneville, and many of Keith’s teammates, often and fondly refer to the defenseman as a freak?
Keith, a humble man who speaks up sparingly but effectively, established Keith Relief, a charitable foundation assisting families and individuals encountering medical crises. Every year, Keith oversees a benefit concert in Chicago, where he evolved into one of the city’s most admired athletes. As Dave Keith said, his son once had other plans about where to settle down.
“Way back when we were still living in Fort Frances, we went to Minneapolis for a squirt tournament,” Dave Keith said. “Kids from all over the world, including Russia. Ilya Kovalchuk played for the Moscow Selects and scored four goals. Duncan’s team lost 7-3, and he was crushed. So he said to me, ‘We have to move to Russia, so I can get better.’ I told him, 'Son, we are not moving to Russia.’
“It all worked out, didn’t it?”
Duncan Keith: 100 Greatest NHL Players (Workhorse defenseman has won Stanley Cup three times, Norris Trophy twice, Conn Smythe Trophy with Blackhawks)
June 12th 2016: Carl Hagelin #62 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after the Penguins won Game 6 of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final over the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California. The Penguins won the game 3-1 and the series 4-2.
SAN JOSE – One hour and six minutes after the final seconds ticked off the clock, after the buzzer had sounded and the equipment had been thrown into the air, three men stood arm-in-arm by the boards. Behind them were the yellow-clad Pittsburgh Penguins fans chanting the moniker by which they had suddenly risen to fame as a trio: “HBK! HBK! HBK!”
They posed for photos, surrounded by family. They smiled. And then they embraced, all three in a tight circle of joy.
The redemption was complete for Phil Kessel. He had shed the criticism and doubt, the questions and the failures, the boos in multiple cities. He had shrugged off the trades out of Boston and out of Toronto, the slights and the accusations. He had found his place, finally. He was the “K” in “HBK,” alongside Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino, and now he was a Stanley Cup champion.
“Yeah,” he said, emotion creeping in after the Penguins’ 3-1 victory against the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. “It’s been a journey.”
And, sometimes, one year can change everything.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “Phil’s a misunderstood guy. He’s a guy that really doesn’t love the limelight. He’s a reserved guy. Just wants to go to the rink, hang out with his teammates. He’s a tremendous hockey player.
"We pushed him like we did all of our players to try to get him to grow his game in areas where we thought he could improve in helping our team win. And Phil responded. He responded the right way. He gets a lot of criticism. Sometimes I think he’s not deserving (of it).
"He’s a tremendous player. He had an unbelievable postseason for us. And we don’t win a Stanley Cup if he’s not part of this group.”
So, yes, the narrative is different now. The story has changed. And yet, as Kessel said, “I’ve never changed my game. Obviously, I’m the same guy that I’ve always been. I just go out there and I try my best. Obviously, this year worked out pretty well.”
He finished the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the fourth-most points of anyone, the only one of the top five who didn’t play for the Sharks. Kessel, a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy that went to Sidney Crosby, scored 10 goals and had 12 assists in 24 postseason games, as the creation and dominance of his line allowed the Penguins to create matchup nightmares for all of their opponents.
“We all played for each other,” Kessel said of his line, which combined for 20 goals and 36 assists. “We knew where each other was going to be. We just found a way.”
And in that, in that performance and his performance this season with his third team in a decade in the NHL, Kessel has found the admiration and respect that it was not always assured he would find.
It started with the July 1 trade that brought him to Pittsburgh, with the Toronto Maple Leafs ridding themselves of a player who hadn’t quite fit with the team or the city. The Maple Leafs shipped off a player who had scored 25 goals last season and 37 the season before.
The Maple Leafs had given up on Kessel. They were rebuilding and they were not going to rebuild with him. It simply hadn’t worked, with too much focus and too much pressure surrounding a player who did not seem to thrive under those conditions.
Pittsburgh was more comfortable. Pittsburgh, it seemed, was right.
Kessel continued to produce, not at his highest rates, but at rates that worked for the Penguins; he had 26 goals and 33 assists in the regular season before becoming a machine in the playoffs. His acquisition was lauded Sunday by Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, in words about his general manager, Jim Rutherford.
As Lemieux said, “[Rutherford] deserves a lot of the credit, starting with the Phil Kessel trade. That was a big piece. You saw how he played in the playoffs, just an amazing competitor.”
This was something Kessel had only dreamed of last summer, something he could not have predicted, something he could barely describe. It was, he said, an “unbelievable feeling.” He was handed the Cup by defenseman Kris Letang, pumping it up and down, and then skating with it and letting out some yelps while his teammates celebrated his triumph.
“I mean, how can you ask for anything better than this?” Kessel said. “Winning the Cup is what you dream of and what you play for.”
And it was something that was on the agenda nearly as soon as the trade was completed. On that same day, on July 1, Kessel received a call from his new captain. Sidney Crosby reached out to him, extending a hand to a new teammate and making a promise.
As Kessel recalled it Sunday, Crosby said they were excited to have him – “‘We’re going to try and win a Cup.’ – And we got it done.”
So, he was asked, is there redemption for you? Has this changed everything?
“I’m a Stanley Cup winner now,” Kessel said. “It’s pretty special.”
The thing with Patrick Kane is that it’s not always about speed. Sometimes it’s about how smart he is. He doesn’t go through the neutral zone with tons of speed, and we saw the chances he created in Game 1, but sometimes just a little delay, trying to look for a little pocket in the coverage for Tampa Bay… It goes [against] the way Joel Quenneville likes his team. He likes his team really fast… tons of speed, attacking the net. But Patrick Kane goes off his own page, and he wants to do his own thing, which Coach Quenneville is comfortable letting him do that because he knows if he’s going to have him on the ice he better create [opportunities]–and if he’s doing that, ‘I’m going to throw him out there.’ And that’s why he double shifted him a couple of times late in the second and in the third, to get all that going.
Jamie McLennan on Patrick Kane, Chicago at Tampa Bay, NHL Stanley Cup Finals pre-game June 6, 2015
You are so stupid. If anyone deserves the cup, it was the Penguins. They practically played with their AHL team during the playoffs. Can you say that about any other team?
Please, make yourself comfortable, because I’m about to drop some knowledge on your grandiose sense of self-worth having ass
Everybody acts like the Penguins are the only fucking team that’s ever lost big players during the season. If you can recall, the Flyers were consistently down at least one big name every game and alternated between three relatively mediocre goalies during their 2010 playoff run. And they managed to force a game 6 overtime against Chicago in the Stanley Cup final, a team that had their act together a shit ton more than we did.
So, what’s the Penguins excuse? Maybe it’s that the Flyers knew that nothing worth fighting for gets handed to them. The Flyers are used to fighting from the bottom, and that builds a hell of a lot more character than holding your spot at the top ever will.
So tell me again how the Penguins “deserve” it. Tell me again how they’re the only ones that have fought against adversity. And if we’re throwing around injuries, tell me again how one of your “AHL” players injured out starting goaltender and we STILL forced a game seven this year.
Please, enlighten me, because I’m dying to hear what you have to say.