<
>

Who is the real Duncan Keith?

CHICAGO -- Imagine this: skinny kid out of British Columbia, toiling away in the American Hockey League. He wears his hair long -- really long -- in part to try to make himself look less like a bone rack.

Before team weigh-ins, he douses the hair with water in the hope he might add a pound or two.

Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman is telling the story.

It helps shade in the areas around the picture of defenseman Duncan Keith, provide a little texture.

"The thing I always admired about Dunc was, and I think it still drives him. He was the guy that was always told, 'You're too small,'" Bowman said in a recent interview.

"I don't know if you're going to meet a more competitive guy than him, and it was always because he was always told, 'You're a great player, but you're just too small.' I think he's always had that chip on his shoulder."

Keith's Blackhawks are in strong pursuit of their third Stanley Cup since 2010 and looking to become the first back-to-back champions since 1997-98, when the Detroit Red Wings performed the near-impossible task of successfully defending the Cup.

Keith, listed at 6-0 and 200 pounds, is a finalist for the Norris Trophy, and if he wins -- if our vote is any indication, he will -- it would be his second. He has two Olympic gold medals.

He is building a Hall of Fame career and might be, right now, the greatest defenseman in franchise history, and he is only 30.

"He's an incredibly fit athlete. He's gone from 151 [pounds when he first broke into the league] to about 195," Bowman said. "He's the most fit guy. He's ripped. He's got incredible lung capacity. He's sort of like a cyclist in terms of his aerobic ability. That's why he plays so many minutes."

On this day, there is hooting and hollering in the nearly empty Blackhawks locker room. A year ago, Keith's son, Colton Duncan Keith, was born. Keith left a first-round series against the Minnesota Wild between games to be with his wife, Kelly-Rae, and returned without missing a game as the Blackhawks would go on to defeat the Wild, Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings and, finally, Boston Bruins in a terrific six-game finals.

The arrival of the couple's first child has changed Keith in the fundamental ways fatherhood changes almost everyone, although he's pretty sure his teammates would argue he is just the same old Duncan Keith, which isn't a bad thing if you like out-of-tune singing in the shower.

"It's been fun. You always hear about from people who had kids about how every stage is different or every stage is the coolest stage," Keith said. "But it is pretty cool stage right now. He's 1 year old now. He motors around and crawling around, and it's fun to kind of chase him around when I crawl around and get on my knees and chase him around the kitchen a little bit and he's squealing and laughing.

"I definitely feel a little bit more mature. I don't really know if I am. I think most of the guys in here would say I'm not. You feel the sense of responsibility in a lot of ways. You realize that is real life. This is really happening."

Bowman made two calls the day he was hired as GM of the Blackhawks in the summer of 2009. One was to agent Pat Brisson, who represents Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and the other was to Ross Gurney, who represents Keith. Bowman explained that he wanted to lock all three players up long term. He recalled having lunch with Keith, and it wasn't the money or the term, except as it related to winning. Keith wanted to know the team's blueprint for long-term winning. That's all he cared about. He didn't want to be in a situation in which the team was good but then had to rebuild.

Bowman must have impressed Keith, who is under contract through the 2022-23 season at an incredibly manageable cap hit of $5.538 million annually.

A top executive with a Western Conference competitor lauded Keith's anticipation and vision on the ice. He is one of the game's most deceptive players, regularly anticipating opposing teams' passes, knocking them down or intercepting them and starting a rush the opposite direction.

"He doesn't do it with physicality, but with body positioning, and he has a great stick," the executive recently told ESPN.com. "He's one of the best players in the world at hiding his stick. It's all based on his hockey intelligence. He knows when to jump up and when to pull back.

"I think he's a great player. I think he's made himself a great player because of his dedication to his profession. He's a very, very dedicated athlete. It's made him a great player. He's taken a certain skill set, and, because of the dedication off the ice and his training, and it's made him an elite player because of it."

Legendary coach Scotty Bowman has watched Keith's evolution and believes there is more than meets the eye.

"I saw him when he first started," said Scotty Bowman, Stan Bowman's father. "You could see he had extra skating ability, and then, I found out a lot about him. He's a super-conditioned athlete. He's one of those guys because of his skating and because of his conditioning. He doesn't have any trouble getting fatigued, it seems.

"Plays at a high pace. He's really improved his skills. He's improved his passing. He's improved his shooting. The combination with him and [Brent] Seabrook has been really something to see."

Is Keith one of the greatest of his generation?

"He's put up good numbers, but not at the risk of playing in his own end, I think," Scotty Bowman said. "Yeah, he's producing offensively. He's a go-to guy on the penalty kill. He's an all-around defenseman. He's not just focused one way."

In some ways, Keith is a study in contrasts. Popular in the locker room, dedicated to his craft and just as happy to retreat to his summer place in British Columbia, away from the big-city trappings of Chicago.

"I love my place back home, and it's nice and quiet," Keith said. "I love hockey and I love the game and I love [the] glory of winning a Stanley Cup. Don't get me wrong, but I think, I don't really feel that I'm that type of guy that tries to seek out attention or love being in the limelight or need that to maybe boost confidence or something."

I ran into Keith the night after Canada won its seminal gold medal in Vancouver in 2010. It was a quiet bar/restaurant, and, with the country celebrating its brains out, this was a quiet refuge. It was the perfect place for Keith, who gathered with some longtime friends and family members for a quiet time to soak in the day.

"I didn't need all the hoopla," he said. "It was just more so I got just as much of a kick out of seeing how happy they were and excited, not only for myself, but for the country and everybody. I get just as much enjoyment seeing my family and my friends happy more so than my own success."

Doug Porter is not really a hockey guy other than being a fan, but he's a Duncan Keith fan. Porter is the CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland. In recent years, Keith and his wife helped raise $250,000 for Ronald McDonald House in the Chicago area and specifically have helped build a floor to house pediatric transplant patients and their families. Because these patients are at risk of rejecting organ transplants and infections, the cost for special materials to outfit the floor in what is the world's largest Ronald McDonald house was significant, and Keith's charities help make that possible.

More than raising money, Keith is a regular visitor to the ward -- sometimes alone, sometimes with family, friends or, as was the case before Christmas, teammates.

On that visit, they lavished gifts on the young patients in a pre-Christmas celebration.

Some of the patients will not survive. That is the reality. But Keith visits, taking time to talk to the patients, to their families.

"He truly enjoys spending time with the families that are there," Porter told ESPN.com.

Sometimes, he'll hold the kids. Sometimes, he'll chat with parents.

Sometimes, he'll pose for pictures and talk hockey.

"He's very accommodating," Porter said. "Some of these families are going through some of the darkest days in their lives." The visits with Keith "means the world to them," Porter added. "It allows them to forget their reality."

It's one thing to help collect a lot of money to help out people in need. It is quite another to be engaged with them, to be willing to connect on some level with them, not out of duty but out of something else, like compassion and the belief that this is the right thing to do.

"I think when we got to Chicago, you come along," Keith said. "You grow here as a person. You get to know a lot of people here. I've been here for a long time now, and I just felt like Chicago's been so good to me and my family and my friends here felt like I needed to give back in some sort of way that it was not all just take, take, take and no give back."

"It's a good feeling to meet the families, especially in Ronald McDonald House. You can go there and visit, and you can see how much they appreciate all the help and support.

"As you get older, you kind of understand it's not all about you. I just think that, at the end of the day, if you can put a smile on a kid's face, you really understand and get a feel for just how much that means to them. If that can help lift their spirits for the rest of the day, or a few days, then that's all I can ask."

Last week, Keith was nominated for an NHL Foundation Player Award, which goes to the player who does the most to help enrich his community using the core values of the sport: commitment, perseverance and teamwork.

None of this is much of a surprise to teammate Patrick Sharp, who has known Keith since the two were playing youth hockey in northwestern Ontario before Keith's family moved to British Columbia. The two families live close to each other now in Chicago, and Sharp has seen Keith and his wife throw themselves into their foundation work.

"Duncs is a guy I've known, I think I've played with him for almost 10 years now," Sharp said. "I've known him since he was 12 years old. ... Always known him to be a guy that's very focused, very driven. He's an undersized player; remember what it was like when we were coming up, too. It was all emphasis on size and strength, and Duncs was a small offensive defenseman. He's obviously got the ability and the athletic ability, but he's got the work ethic and the drive to get him to where he is, not only in the league but as one of the elite defensemen in the league.

"I guess one thing that keeps surprising me is that he never slows down. Every year he's got something, whether it's with his training off the ice, whether it's with his diet, with his nutrition, you name it. He's always looking to improve. That's pretty impressive given all the success he's had," added Sharp, who was a teammate of Keith's at the Sochi Olympics in February, when Canada won a second straight gold medal.

What makes Keith such an interesting figure is that he is, well, interesting.

Asked what he thinks about when he thinks of Keith, Sharp practically rolls his eyes.

"Boy, that's a loaded question," Sharp said with a grin.

"I guess you'd have to know Duncan to kind of know what we're talking about when we say he's a little bit of a different guy. He does what he feels. He does what he feels is right. He's a good leader, he's a good teammate and he's entertaining, that's for sure. That's the word I'll use: He's entertaining."

Kris Versteeg was with the Blackhawks when they won a Cup in 2010 to end a drought dating back to 1961. He left for a couple of seasons and is now back in the fold.

"Still Duncan," he told ESPN.com when asked if there'd been a change.

So, what's he like in the room?

"That's something you'd have to be around every day to understand," Versteeg said. "He just likes to sing in the showers and joke around. It's hard to explain really Duncan. Like I say: You've got to be around him."

It's true. On an almost daily basis, Keith will burst out in song in the team showers.

"I don't know. More like an everyday thing," Keith said with a grin. 'It echoes in there, so I think my voice is probably better in there than it really is."

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has played against Keith and with him at the past two Olympics. He has profound respect for Keith's game.

"He just does everything well," Crosby said. "He skates well. He's in great shape. He can play a lot of minutes. It's regular to see him play a full two minutes of a power play and then play the next shift and not look like he's even lost wind at all. Just everything about his game. He's smart defensively. He's strong, I don't know if there's one area that you could say that he really can be exposed on. I just think he's solid all the way through. Offensively, especially what he's able to create, is pretty amazing."

But, likewise, when asked about Keith's off-ice demeanor, Crosby laughed.

"Just really funny," Crosby said. "Sometimes, I don't know if you know exactly what's going to come out of his mouth, but it's usually going to be funny. He's a great guy to have around, and I'm sure he keeps things loose there. But, from my experience playing with him, just a lot of fun and, like I said, keeps things loose."

Does a player like Keith, who has accomplished so much and worked hard to make himself into not just a pro hockey player but one of the best in the game, ever sit back and take stock of his accomplishments?

Umm, maybe some might. But not this one.

"I never really think that way, to be honest with you," Keith said. "I always analyze how I'm playing. I know there's been some games. I know I've had some good games this year, but I think, for me, I always want to try and get better. I look at other defensemen who I played against growing up, and a lot of them were really good players, and I think as a defenseman, a lot of them say you can get better as you get older. I think part of that's true. You get smarter. For me this year, I really focused on trying to be consistent and preparation. I've always tried to be consistent, but I think there's always another level you can get to.

"It's that old cliché: one day at a time, one season at a time. I love it here. I love my teammates, the trainers and the city and the people here. I think you just try and enjoy every year. And you appreciate it as the years go by. You realize just how quick everything goes by and you can't play forever. Eventually, you're going to have to retire one day, and you're going to look back on these days, and all you're going to have is memories, so you want to have a lot of fun and win as much as you can.

"Probably, at the end of the day, that's what I want to look back on my career and know that I had a lot of fun but also that we won a lot."