Thursday, June 20, 2013

Keith ... not rooting for the Boston Bruins now

By Larry Wigge

When you want magic from a defenseman, you don't have to say abracadabra to loud to get Duncan Keith involved. Flash ... he was there.

Every time three men Chicago players went in on a rush, there was No. 2 making a push forward for the Blackhawks as they attempted to get even at two games apiece in their series against the Boston Bruins.

When Chicago scored in overtime, it was Keith's sidekick Brent Seabrook who chalked up the winner -- on a slap shot that whistled past Boston goalie Tuukka Rask at 9:51 for a 6-5 victory.

Keith couldn't be any happier than Seabrook was. 

"We were jumping up on the play all night," Keith observed. "It gave Boston a different look ... that I think it surprised them."

When the defensive duo first teamed up as roommates on road trips with the Blackhawks, Seabrook was 20 years old and Keith was 22. Seven seasons later, they still carpool to the airport and back again whenever the Hawks are on the road.

"I think we just grew up together," Seabrook said. "I think we've got a pretty good understanding of how each other are and how each other thinks."

Like a married couple, Seabrook thought he knew all of Keith deepest and darkest secrets. Until, Keith pronounced his allegiance to the Boston Bruins as a kid growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

"Personally, for myself growing up as a kid, a little kid, I was always a big Boston Bruins fan," Keith admitted. "For me, it's going to be neat to go back there and play in the Stanley Cup Final."

Neat? Wait a minute, said Seabrook. Had he heard this right? Keith grew up a Bruins fans. Yes, a young Keith grew up rooting for a team that played its hockey almost 2,000 miles away from him.

Say it aint so, Dunc.

Truth be told, Keith's favorite player at the time was Ray Bourque. Not a bad role model, according to Seabrook, whose favorite player was Chris Pronger of the St. Louis Blues. Got that Dunc.

"I don't wanna make a big deal out of that, it's a long time ago," Keith said. "Just Ray Bourque was one of my favorite players. I think he was a pretty awesome defenseman."

Keith has studied the styles of previous Norris Trophy winners as Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Leetch and Raymond Bourque, all of whom generated offense from the back end by skating and passing. The same must be said for Pierre Pilote, Doug Wilson, Chris Chelios and the fluid, fleet Keith, the Norris winner in 2010 helping the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup the same year.  

On this night, Keith was a plus-three, had one assist, two shots and one blocked shot. For the Hawks, Duncan now had two goals and 10 assists in 20 playoff games.

"Dunks is a thoroughbred," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. "I think he's one of those guys, his conditioning level is at a different level than most players. He's able to absorb big minutes."

His teammates could see the tenacity and fearlessness he took in Game 4 against Detroit. 

"He's one of those guys you kind of take for granted because he's back there every night and does pretty much the same thing," Patrick Kane said. "Whether it's shutting down the other team, or creating offensive chances, or jumping in the rush, or how fast he skates, or how good he is defensively with his stick .. . he does so many things that you can name and really is huge for our team."

Duncan Keith is one of those self-motivated individuals. Nothing ... and I believe nothing ... is going to stop him from being a quality defenseman.

He dared to be himself ... and it has worked out pretty well.

The Blackhawks big-minute defenseman remembers that his parents never pushed him to be a lawyer or doctor, an electrician or a fireman. They told him to just find a career path he liked and go for it.

No pressure.

It wasn't unusual for a youngster in Fort Frances, Ontario, just across the border from frigid International Falls, Minnesota, to choose hockey. After all, everything was frozen around town for months.

"I'd like to say I got the athletic genes from my mom or dad (his dad, David, is a bank manager and his mom, Jean, is a nurse's aid), but I guess that comes from my grandpa, Wilf, who was a soccer player in England," Keith laughed. "As far back as I can remember, there was nothing other than hockey that I wanted for my career."

And even though he was a tiny kid, the diminutive youngster overlooked the barriers he faced and made it to the National Hockey League. He's grateful to his parents the figure skating classes they enrolled him in when he was just a tot. Experts will tell you that being so good at one part of the game often gives a kid the opportunity to catch up with the rest of the pre-requisites needed to play hockey at at high level. And that's the story of Keith's rise to stardom.

"It may sound funny, but I remember checking almost every day to see if I had grown," Keith said with a twinkle in his eyes. "I may have only been 5-3 when I was 14, but I had big plans. I knew I could skate. I knew I had talent."

Nothing was going to stop this singleminded, self-motivated youngster. Not even getting cut from Team Pacific when he was 15. That was just a small pothole on his road to success.

"That was just about the time I began to go through a growth spurt," he explained. "I went from 5-3 to 5-6 at 14, 5-9 at 16, 5-11 at 178 and 6-feet-tall at 19. For most of my life it always seemed like I was the smallest kid on the team."

You could say he was always measuring the future, measuring his pathway to success.

"A guy like Duncan Keith is fearless," Montreal Canadiens executive Rick Dudley told me. "He will go back and get the puck under duress. It used to be the bigger defenseman would have to hold up and you couldn't get a forecheck, but now under the new rules you need more character because you are going back with the threat of being hit almost all the time now.

"So whether you are a defenseman big or small, you have to have character and quick feet, and character is what Duncan Keith is all about."

To a layman's eye, the first thing you notice about Keith is his speed. He parlays that talent into an enormous positive, being able to take a chance offensively and still recover to be back in position defensively.

"I'll never forget a play last year against Nashville where Dunc was up the ice creating an offensive opportunity in a 4-on-4 situation in overtime and in an instant the play went back the other way," Florida GM Dale Tallon said, shaking his head (Tallon was with Chicago at the time Keith was drafted). "David Legwand, who has some of the best wheels in the NHL, was off ... and Keith gave him a head start and he still caught him before he could get off a shot at the other end of the rink."

Keith laughs at the play, saying that Legwand was at the end of his shift -- although there's a fire in his eyes to indicate that he'd love nothing better than to get Legwand or another of the NHL's fastest skaters on a track to show off his own skating ability.

The 30-year-old defenseman's minutes seem to increase each year, a value barometer that had risen to more than 29 minutes a game -- Chris Pronger and Nicklas Lidstrom minutes.

Duncan is also remarkably durable, having missed just one game in his five NHL seasons. He credits his work with weights for improving his size and plyametrics and speed sprints with making him leaner and faster and all the stamina he needs to play the kind of minutes the Blackhawks have given him the last couple of seasons.

Keith, who was a late bloomer because of his lack of height, came on fast after three seasons of Tier II hockey at Penticton in British Columbia and 1 1/2 more nondescript seasons playing at Michigan State University. Still, the Blackhawks thought enough of him to select him in the second round, 54th overall, in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

"When we drafted him, he was 5-11 and 160 pounds," recalled Tallon. "Now, he's 6-0 and 190. That commitment to his growth physically and as a player shows me he has an unbelievable desire to get better."

Duncan Keith was a business major at Michigan State University. Weightlifting and mountain biking are his hobbies. 

"I liked defense right away -- getting the opportunity to control more of the game back there," he told me. "I always believed in myself. All I needed was to find a way to make it."

The offense was always there -- in Fort Frances, Penticton, Michigan State and Kelowna, but a driven Duncan knew there were other parts of his game -- can you say defense -- that needed work.

"I wouldn't be here today without the help I got from Rob McLaughlin, my bantam coach, who helped improve his skating stride using plyametrics," Keith acknowledged. "I noticed improvements on the ice right after just a week with Rob. It was like I had gained an extra step or two that I didn't have before.

"The same was true when I went Michigan State and Ron Mason taught me about systems and being responsible at both ends of the rink. Then, when I went to Norfolk (American Hockey League) and played for (former NHL defenseman) Trent Yawney, he really taught me how to play the position -- the responsibilities I had in my own zone, how to match up with a speedy forward or a power forward and win the one-on-one battle. I'll never forget how nice it was to have somebody at that point in my career willing to take the time to teach me how to be better."

"He's got great skills. The kind you can't teach," remembered Mason.

After Keith began to play on defense full-time, he switched to Bobby Orr, Brian Leetch and Nicklas Lidstrom and Bourque.

"I've watched old tapes of Orr and, well, everything he did on defense, plus I liked how Leetch jumped up and anticipated the play to get open for a shooting lane or pass. And how can you not like Lidstrom's calm on the ice and the way he controls the play," Duncan explained. "Right now, I'd say I'm more of a puck-control defenseman. I'd rather try to make a pass and break it out, then go on the rush."

Talent like that is worth a trip around the world, similar to the one Keith's parents simultaneously took years ago, when his Canadian father and English-born mother met for the first time in —- of all places —- Yugoslavia.

"With that speed, he was always a player we talked about in our pre-game meeting -- making sure our guys were aware at how quickly he could jump up into the play and create a scoring chance," said Joel Quenneville, the new Blackhawks coach remembering how he'd have to game-plan against Keith when Joel was coaching the Colorado Avalanche.

Now, it's Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. In another era, they'd be rooting for Ray Bourque and Chris Pronger.

Some quality players from any era.

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