Let’s jump ahead about two and a half years or so. Basically, the ’20-’21 season. It doesn’t really matter what the Hawks fortunes are then, though it will have an influence. During that season, barring a major injury before, both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will play their 1,000th regular season game.
Now imagine the build-up to both. How long do you think it is? A week? Maybe more? Certainly more than a few days. Clearly, a couple national publications will get in on the fun. There will be reminiscing of the Hawks’ glory days, and a rehashing of the debate about where they rank in the pantheon of all-time great teams. Certainly it will be an event, two of them actually, and assuming you can ignore the particularly grossness of one of them, you won’t be able to miss it. The team’s best ever winger and perhaps it’s second or third greatest center getting a silver stick.
So why isn’t there more of a buzz about the player who was more important than both of them?
Duncan Keith will play his 1,000th game on Saturday night. He is the best Hawks d-man of all-time. Of this there can be little debate. Two Norris Trophies, a Conn Smythe (unanimously won, and really should have been a second for him after 2010), two gold medals. There is no Hawk who can come close to matching this haul of silverware. Three rings to go along with it, as well, and a couple more Conference Final appearances.
You could only make an argument for Chris Chelios, really. Two Norris Trophies as a Hawk, a World Cup winner’s medal, one Conference Final appearance and one Final appearance. And folks, let me tell ya, Chris Chelios is not Duncan Keith.
Some may bristle at the notion that Keith was the most important Hawk. You can if you’d like, except you’d be wrong. When Keith was good, the Hawks were good. It was that simple. When he was quite simply Daredevil right in front of his blue line, the Hawks did no worse than a conference final in ’09, ’10, ’13, ’14, ’15. When his play dropped off, so did the Hawks’. Patrick Kane has played his best hockey the past three seasons. The Hawks have three playoff wins. When Keith played his best hockey, they were at least in touching distance of the Cup.
I know why Keith hasn’t gotten even the buzz that Seabrook did. Seabrook’s night came at the end of a lost season, and the Hawks needed anything to glom onto to make fans feel good. Keith’s night comes at the beginning of the season when the Bears are still very much on everyone’s mind and interest in the team is low overall.
Seabrook has always been more media friendly than Keith. Keith has been prickly at times, outright dismissive at others, and is still the only Hawk who has occasionally raised a middle finger to John McDonough’s media policies (such as always wearing a Hawks hat during scrums, and this only endears him to me even more). Keith has a couple ugly suspensions on his record (he should have gotten way more than he did for trying to behead Charlie Coyle). Though I suppose Seabrook trying to turn David Backes into plaster in ’14 is a blotch as well (though it’s something we’ve all dreamed of, and strangely led to the best two games of Sheldon Brookbank‘s career. The world is indeed strange).
We probably can’t ignore that Keith was somewhat front and center of the first off-ice controversy of this Hawks run, you may remember it as “Patrick Sharp And His Lack Of Traveling Pants,” though he was more an innocent bystander. Tellingly, it was Seabrook who took the lead on trying to quash that in the dressing room. Keith remained silent, which is basically how he’s always preferred it.
Keith has never been the pivot in the Hawks’ ad campaigns or marketing drives. He’s left that to Toews and Kane or Sharp. It just hasn’t mattered to him. He’s had his charity and his fundraising nights, but even those were a little more underplayed than Brian Campbell‘s or others’. That’s another reason you don’t hear as much as you might think about his upcoming milestone.
But on the ice, Keith was the Hawks when they were rolling over the league night-in and night-out. It was his ability to step in front of traffic before the line that was the root of their entire game. To turn around the play before it ever got dangerous, and get the puck quickly to the forwards in space and with the opposition caught.
Keith’s unnatural quickness and physical condition allowed him to do things no other d-man could get away with, and to do it for 25 minutes a night at least. He could travel outside the circles to dispossess a forward or chase behind the net, because A. he was on them so quickly he almost always won the puck before anyone had time to calculate what to do and B. he could recover in time to get away with not doing so. Those skills have gone now, but they were vital to everything the Hawks did.
What’s funny about Keith is that he’s not nearly as talented as some. He’s never been a great passer. He’s nowhere near the puck-handler that Karlsson or Subban are. You know about his shooting skills. He’s not particularly big, though he’s far stronger than you’d think. What he was wasn’t just fast, but fast-twitch like no one else. Keith’s entire game, his instincts, were basically a constant, “Fuck it, I’m going.” And he’d get there. Every damn time.
He was the anchor for the only three Cup teams almost all of us have ever known. The picks and development of Henri Jokiharju, Adam Boqvist, Nicholas Beaudin…are all meant to try and replicate what Keith was.
And it’s not like Keith’s dead. He’s looked better given a partner who can do some of the stuff he used to, when it’s not dependent on only him to do it. He’s 35 now, and while he’s always been a conditioning freak, who knows how much longer he wants to do this. He’s backed off his claims of wanting to play until he’s 45, though given his fitness he probably could have made a run at it.
Perhaps the most rewarding thing for fans is that we got to watch the whole arc of Keith. He didn’t come up anywhere near the finished product like Toews or Kane or even Seabrook was close to being. Those first two years under Trent Yawney or Denis Savard, it was like watching Nightcrawler on a coke binge (what can I say? I’m in a Marvel mood. Blame the Spider-Man game). He was flashing everywhere, and most of the time is was where he wasn’t supposed to be. And he was doing it in front of no one. You’d see an amazing play about once per game, and then he’d spend the next period on the wrong side of the ice pointed the wrong way and all four of his limbs flailing away like he was drowning in sewage. Which he mostly was.
Given a real coach though, who only had to put light harnessing on it all, and Keith took off. Suddenly that raw power and speed was pointed in the right direction, without taking away from it, and no one could live with it. We saw the whole arc. Keith went from uncontrollable, festering energy to the league’s best. So did the whole team.
Keith’s the best to ever do it in the Red and White from the blue line. He doesn’t chase or probably want the acclaim. But he’s going to get it here. He should be getting it from everywhere.
So thank you, Duncs. None of this happens without you, whether you care or not if anyone knows that.