The first time I met Chicago Blackhawks star defenseman Duncan Keith, I was working on a story for THN magazine. I went into Chicago’s dressing room, and waited patiently for Keith to take off his practice gear, and as he did, a Hawks media relations person leaned into him and said, “The Hockey News is here to see you”.
Now, I’ll tell you from personal experience that, under similar circumstances, players have openly shrugged their shoulders – and, in one case, with another THN writer, actually said to him, “I don’t care (who you’re writing for)” – but with Keith, it was different. When he was told THN was there to chat, he instantly straightened up his spine, patted down his hair, and was about as respectful as any NHL star I’ve encountered. It spoke to his position as a student of the game, and his awareness of the media as a necessary, important part of the job.
That’s how I think of Keith, especially now that he’s announced his retirement from the NHL. After 17 years – 16 with the Hawks, and one season, last year, with Edmonton – Keith has gone on to build a Hockey Hall of Fame-worthy career.
Perhaps Keith’s humility and ferocious determination comes from the fact nothing was handed to him as a young D-man. The Blackhawks drafted him 54th overall in 2002, but the first two years of his professional career were spent in the American League, with Norfolk, and he didn’t blow anyone away, scoring 25 and then 26 points in those two seasons. When he did make the jump to the NHL level in 2005-06, he also didn’t rack up a whole bunch of points, scoring nine goals and 21 points in his rookie season, and never breaking the 40-point plateau until his fourth NHL campaign.
However, slowly-but-surely, Keith rounded into elite form. His coaches trusted him at both ends of the rink, and he rewarded that trust when he’d have what would be his best NHL regular season in 2009-10 when he netted 14 goals and 69 points in 82 games. He had a lot to live up to that year, having signed a 13-year, $72-million contract extension in December of 2009, but live up to it he did, finishing second in the league in average ice time per game (26:35), winning what would be his first of two Norris Trophies as the league’s top D-man, earning a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics, and leading Chicago to its first of three Stanley Cup championships in the 2010 post-season.
But the best was yet to come for Keith. He won Cup No. 2 with the Hawks in 2012-13; he was a member of Canada’s gold-medal group at the 2014 Olympic Games; he won his second Norris Trophy in 2014; and in 2014-15, he won his final Cup while also being named the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable playoff performer. By that point, he was 32 years old, but he’d go on to play another six seasons in the Windy City. Even when the Hawks sagged in their competitive cycle, they knew they could always get an honest effort from Keith. He wasn’t brash, or expectant, even though his career accomplishments could’ve given him reason to be. He was the same Canadian kid he’d always been, tough on the puck in his own end and smooth as silk with it in the opposition’s end, and Hawks fans adored him for it.
When Keith did move on from the Hawks last season to play alongside Connor McGregor and Leon Draisaitl, something seemed off seeing him in a different NHl jersey. This isn’t a comment on the Oilers or Edmonton; rather, it’s the recognition Keith’s link to the Blackhawks is a deep and lasting one. He played 1,206 regular-season games and had 540 assists and 646 points – and in 151 playoff games, he amassed 72 assists and 91 points. When he’s inducted into the HHOF, he’ll go in wearing a Chicago jersey, and cap off one of the most consistently effective NHL careers in modern memory.
Thanks for the memories, Duncan. You were an absolute joy to watch, and the game has been better for your association with it.