Keith finally has chance to reflect on historic season

Bryce Forbes

It has been a life-changing six months for Chicago Blackhawks’ defenceman Duncan Keith—one that not even the greatest hockey players of all time have ever matched.
Keith, who got his start in minor hockey here in Fort Frances, became the first player to win Olympic gold, the Stanley Cup, and, most recently, the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenceman all in one season.
Now for the first time since last September, the soon-to-be 27-year-old finally can start to reminisce and enjoy what he’s accomplished over the past year.
“It’s been a real busy couple of weeks,” Keith admitted in a phone interview from his home in Penticton, B.C. last week.
“I got a new place here so relaxing on the water,” he noted. “I’m looking forward to having some down time now. Obviously a long season with a lot going on.
“It’s nice to relax in the summer, get your workouts in, and get rejuvenated for next year.”
Keith capped off a successful season in which he posted career highs with 14 goals, 55 assists, and 69 points—good for second place on the Blackhawks and just behind league-leading Mike Green of the Washington Capitals for top point-getter for a rear guard.
He added 17 points in Chicago’s playoff run and helped end the team’s 49-year Stanley Cup drought when Patrick Kane squeaked the overtime winner past Michael Leighton of the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of the final.
“At first when the goal went in, I didn’t know it went in,” Keith said. “Immediately after, Kane went crazy and guys were jumping up and down.
“It finally sunk in that we had won [and] it was pretty neat.
“We were in Philadelphia but there was still quite a few ’Hawks fans there, so I think it was nice to see the look on the peoples’ faces,” Keith added.
“Obviously, we were pretty ecstatic ourselves, from coaches to players and management, to bring the Cup back to Chicago when we did.
“When we brought it around to different restaurants and bars, it brought the city of Chicago together and it was nice to see that.”
While it would be easy to give most of the credit to star players like Keith, Kane, Jonathan Toews, and goalie Anti Niemi, Keith is quick to pass around the praise to the depth players.
“Really it was a whole team effort,” he stressed. “You look at our team and right on down from our back-up goalie to the six defencemen to four lines of forwards is really the reason there was a turnaround.
“It’s not fair to say it was two or three players because they are the guys who get talked about lots.”
Still, Keith has helped oversee the turnaround of the Blackhawks from perennial cellar-dwellers pre-lockout into the team that will hoist its fourth Stanley Cup banner come October.
“When I first got there, we didn’t have the crowds and we weren’t winning,” he recalled. “The biggest change happened when Rocky Wirtz took over as owner.
“Now it’s all about winning and it’s just a first-class organization now, and when it gets ran like that, it trickles down to everybody,” Keith reasoned.
“Players step up and anything but winning is unacceptable.”
And Keith should be enjoying all Chicago has to offer for plenty of years to come after inking a 13-year extension worth $72 million (U.S.)
“That’s why I signed it because I wanted to be in Chicago,” he remarked. “If I didn’t like Chicago, I wouldn’t have signed that long of a deal.
“I like the organization and the leadership from owner Rocky Wirtz and it trickles down.
“It’s a chance to play for a contender and compete for the Cup because we are going to be there year after year,” he pledged.
Keith topped off his historic season by edging out Green and the L.A. Kings’ Drew Doughty for the Norris Trophy at the NHL awards in Las Vegas last month.
“It really is an honour to win the award,” he enthused. “When I got the trophy and saw the other names on it. . . .
“It’s pretty amazing to look at the list of names, like Bobby Orr and Doug Harvey, and the list goes on, so just to be in that category now, it’s an amazing feeling.
“I didn’t really know [of my chances],” Keith admitted. “I heard the talk, and I knew Mike Green and Drew Doughty had great seasons.
“Lucky for me the voting was in my favour.
“We were all a little nervous, but it was nice when I heard my name called,” he added.
Don’t expect Keith to forget his night at the awards banquet anytime soon, either. After winning the Norris, he said he took out a group of friends for a night in Vegas.
“We had a huge dinner out at some restaurant in The Bellagio, with a big table outside on the balcony overlooking where they do the water show, probably around 20 of us there,” he recalled.
“We had the whole deck to ourselves. It was a nice way to celebrate.
“Of course after that, we went out for a little bit,” he continued. “I wouldn’t say it was as good as ‘The Hangover,’ but we had a good time.
“It was a lot of fun.”
Keith also had a guest spot on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” with a few teammates.
“That was my second time being there, so I was a little more comfortable this time around,” he remarked. “It’s always neat to go on a show like that and meet Jay Leno and go to L.A. and hanging out in Hollywood.
“The places are pretty surreal out there.”
While on the show, Keith gave Leno a necklace with one of the seven teeth that were knocked out from a shot to the mouth during Game 6 of the Western Conference final.
“He was pretty happy about it,” Keith said. “We were laughing about it after the show, he was pretty surprised about it.
“I don’t know if he still got it or not,” he conceded. “He might have thrown that one out in the garbage.”
After the playoff run, Keith got seven temporary teeth put in. But he still has about seven hours of dental work left once he gets back to Chicago.
“When you’re a kid growing up, you see the players playing through injury,” he remarked. “It’s one of those things where everything is about winning and sacrificing, and that’s the thing at the end of the day that people need to do their part.”
The season was a mighty long for Keith as he played in more than 110 games during the season, including playoffs and the Olympics in Vancouver.
But for him, it was all worth it.
“The Olympic gold medal was nice because you got your whole country behind you and you are playing for your whole country,” Keith declared.
“It’s just a honour to be named to the team and so you want to play as hard as you can.
“If you weren’t playing in it, you would be watching it with everyone else, so to bring home the gold medal, it was a special feeling.”
He always will remember where he was when possibly the biggest goal in Canadian history was scored when Sidney Crosby beat U.S. goalie Ryan Miller five-hole in overtime of the gold-medal game.
“I saw it right away as it went in as I had a good view of it from the bench at the time. It was just ecstatic,” Keith recalled.
“You go through so many emotions throughout the tournament and to finally get the goal, the one we talked about as a team and set out to achieve.
“We knew there was so much pressure with so many people watching, it was just amazing.”
Meanwhile, this off-season will be one of change for the Blackhawks as they desperately try to lock up important free agents while staying below the NHL’s salary cap of $55.85 million.
Since the end of their Cup run, the squad already has dealt away Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, Kris Verstegg, Colin Fraser, and Ben Eager to shed salary.
They still need to re-sign restricted free-agent goalie Niemi and Niklas Hjalmarsson, as well.
“It’s tough because you’re good friends, but you hear rumours during the season and lots of talk that things are going to change,” noted Keith.
“Then reality sets in [that] there has to be changes made, and that’s the reality that changes need to be made and who knows if there are going to be more?
“At the end of the day, it’s still a business,” Keith reasoned. “Now we need the young guys to step in and play the role and step up.
“In today’s cap world in the NHL we need to live with, we need to identify, a core and it’s a great group of guys to play with,” he stressed.
“We have Toews and Kane up front and giving the puck to them, it’s a lot of fun out there.”
Through it all, Keith will not forget his roots in Fort Frances—even mentioning the town in his post-game interview during the Stanley Cup celebrations.
“I would like to [come to Fort Frances], but it’s such a busy summer,” he said. “I just got back to British Columbia now, so I can’t say I have any plans getting back [to Fort Frances].
“As of now, there [are] eight weekends out here and seven of them are booked up for things like charity golf tourneys, so the time just seems to fly by on a short summer like this.
“At the same time, it’s nice to relax like this at my home and rest for what is most important, which is next season.
“Fort Frances is where I had my childhood there [until] I was 14 years old and so I have a lot of great memories in Fort Frances,” Keith added.
“It’s basically where I learned how to skate, playing on the outdoor rink in the east end with all my buddies.
“I think it’s a great place to grow up for a kid, and I hope there is more young players who see that and come out of Fort Frances because you don’t have to be from a big city like Toronto to grow up and end up playing in the NHL, and I think I’m proof for that.
“I always cherish my time there and I wish I could get back,” Keith reiterated. “This summer it might not work out, but maybe next summer.
“I can’t guarantee anything.”
In the end, he decided his lone day with hockey’s holy grail would be spent in Penticton.
“Obviously, it was a tough decision but at the same time, I have my house here, I’ve made my life here ever since I was 14 years old, so I’ve been coming back to Penticton for a long time,” he noted.
“The problem is I only get it for one day and it’s not really a full day, so I get it about 8 in the morning to 11 at night.
“It would be different if I had to two days with the Cup.”
In fact, Keith said he’s still finalizing plans with Lord Stanley’s mug.
When asked what he would do for his day with the Cup if the Blackhawks repeated as champs next year, Keith replied, “We will have to talk about it next year, but it’s definitely a possibility.”