“I felt like it had really good stretches and then there (were) times I would just … I don’t want to say … lose focus, but just was not really … interested for whatever reason.” Duncan Keith, 4/22/2011
Duncan Keith finally came clean Friday afternoon. He admitted what many have speculated, and Keith’s on-ice performance suggested most of the 2010-11 season.
The Blackhawks top defenseman and highest-paid player in franchise history admitted his game suffered through stretches when Keith told reporters upon arriving at O’Hare airport on Friday that he wasn’t “interested for whatever reason” at points during this season. Keith also said he wasn’t excited coming into the season, which he blamed on a short summer.
2010-11 was the first year of 13-year contract extension Duncan Keith signed in December of 2009. He was paid $8 million this season, a 420% raise off his prior year salary, and will make another $64M over the next twelve seasons. Keith will earn an average of $7.75M for the next five years, through the 2015-16 season. Because his deal in heavily frontloaded, Keith’s cap hit (total dollar value divided by term) is $5.538M per season.
Two writers on the scene, Brian Hedger of NHL.com and ESPNChicago’s Jesse Rogers got the story and have the full quotes. Incredibly, at least as of this writing, the story also appears on the Blackhawks official web site. But here are the meat and potatoes of Keith’s confession from Hedger’s article.
“This year for me was frustrating,” the reigning Norris Trophy winner said at O’Hare Airport after the Hawks returned from Vancouver. “I felt like it had really good stretches and then there (were) times I would just … I don’t want to say … lose focus, but just was not really … interested for whatever reason.”
His face contorted as he spoke, like a kid swallowing a dose of cough medicine. Yet there was still more to get off his chest.
“I’m not explaining it right, but I would just have good stretches and bad stretches and more inconsistency than I would’ve liked,” Keith said. “It’s frustrating, but I look at it like, I don’t know, I played a lot of games the year before and there’s things I probably could’ve done differently to prepare for this season. I like to work out and train a lot and feel good going into the season, and I’m not making any excuses but I didn’t feel … excited, coming back to start a season. So, that’s just being honest.”
Now a rational person can fully understand Keith’s plight – if you can call being a professional athlete taking home $8,000,000.00 for eight months of staying in shape, traveling on charter planes, per diems, overnighting in luxury hotels and playing a game he’s one of the best in the world at a “plight.”
Last season the Blackhawks achieved the ultimate prize in professional hockey, the Stanley Cup. 49 years is a long time to go without a championship, so having one fresh on the brain will create more than a few forgiving Blackhawks’ fans.
But Keith also attained further success winning a Gold medal for Canada in February 2010 with teammates Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook. Top it off with personal adulation in winning the 2010 Norris Trophy recognizing Keith as the NHL’s best defenseman and that’s quite a year. A season such as that would be difficult to top as well.
Kool-aid drinkers and Keith apologists will be quick to hail Keith’s honesty. Some will be quick to jump all over Friday’s quotes.
Blackhawks season ticket holders and open market consumers saw sharp increases in Blackhawks’ ticket prices this season in part due to supply and demand, but also because of sharp increases on contracts to Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. After all, the NHL remains primarily a gate-revenue business. So satisfying bloated salaries and increased expenses will be continually passed on to the paying fans.
If Keith arrived for training camp in September or started the Blackhawks’ quest for a repeat unprepared or at less than a desired level of enthusiasm, only he knows for sure. However, his comments Friday seem to back up anyone suggesting it. So it’s up to each fan, and probably more pertinently the paying customers, to decide whether or not to let Keith off the hook for his admitted actions.
Odds are very good Keith is not the only one in the Hawks’ locker room with similar comments weighing on their own conscious. He’s just the first to come out and say it.
It’s highly unlikely anyone would have advised Keith to ever come out publicly and state he was disinterested or lacking enthusiasm at any point in the season. In other sports that’s a reputation killer. But if there was a time to do it and get away with it, or have forgiving fans and media sweep it under the rug, Friday would have been the day.
The timing of Keith’s admission is also conspicuous by its placement being it comes less than 24 hours following his best game of the year, and in a 5-0 whitewash of the Canucks in Vancouver. Keith’s 2 goal, 4-point performance in Game 5 was one of his all-around best performances in his six years as an NHLer.
There’s no question the local media and Hawks fans will do just that. The Blackhawks have been the feel-good train around Chicago for the past three years. Whenever the train comes to a full stop here over the next week (or a few more), many will simply skip off and hop aboard the Chicago Bulls love bus.
The media’s relationship with hockey is difficult to explain. Hockey is just there. Not many understand the game fully, even those who are paid to talk and write about it daily. It’s covered and when its done, the media moves on. There’s no passion or meticulous attention in the media’s coverage of hockey, as there is for football, baseball and basketball again in this town. Most writers who cover the hockey beat proclaim it the easiest in sports and thus are unwilling to rock the boat. As for the core hockey fan, they’ve spent so much time defending “their” sport and the prowess of the athletes in it that they’re quick to turn a blind eye when they’re not on guard for “outsiders” attacking their beloved sport.
So it’s fairly certain Keith will escape a backlash locally in Chicago. If there’s a movement to criticize or question Keith’s commitment, there will assuredly be a stern line of hawk-ey defenders, because…. well, just because. At worst he’ll be admonished qently, but in the same hand praised for his “refreshing” honesty. It also helps when these types of things break on a Friday and there will be a Game 6 to talk about Monday when most people reconvene to talk sports.
If Keith were an athlete in this town playing for the Bears, Cubs, White Sox, Bulls, or perhaps if the shade of his skin weren’t pale, that, however, would be a different story.
Imagine if Derrick Rose, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs or Alfonso Soriano were quoted in the papers saying there were times over the course of their respective seasons that they just weren’t interested “for whatever reason.” Think about how that would go over.
Are 72 million dollars not motivation enough?
There’s no clause in the standard player contract prohibiting apathy. If there was, players like Alex Zhamnov and Boris Mironov would owe the Wirtz family millions.
But there are plenty of questions that could stem from Keith’s comments. If he’s accomplished everything he can and is guaranteed every dime he’ll ever make in hockey already at age 27, then what is his motivation moving forward?
Should he regain his enthusiasm, as it appears Keith did four games into this Vancouver series, but only after the Hawks had gone down 3-0 and his best friend and defensive partner was shelved by a hard and much-questioned Raffi Torres check, then how much can you trust him to sustain that rekindled enthusiasm moving forward?
If it’s easy to excuse Keith rationally because of a hectic and plenteous 2009-10 season, then wouldn’t it be just as easy to question his motivation now with a legacy in place and financial security attained?
Many players struggle in the initial year of a big payday contract because they’re mentally consumed with trying to live up to that dollar value of the deal. According to Keith’s own statements, living up to his $72 million dollar contract extension wasn’t something that entered his mind.
After all, in theory, Keith “earned” the deal the Blackhawks offered him to remain apart of the organization for the next 13 years. There is no code of ethics. The Blackhawks get what they pay for and the inherent risk is theirs.
Do the paying Blackhawks’ fans deserve better? Absolutely.
To have a veteran player not only admit he “probably could’ve done things differently to prepare for this season” but to also say he lacked “interest” at points during the season is in no way acceptable.
As a veteran leader and alternate captain, Keith should be ashamed. Jonathan Toews like most Hawks suffered brief lulls during the season but in the end his production improved off his ’09-10 numbers and he’s ridden just as heavily as Keith. Toews’ plus/minus actually went up 3 points and his goal (+7) and point totals (+8) also improved. Keith on the other hand, dropped in goals (-7), assists (-17) and plus/minus (-22). Patrick Sharp didn’t suffer a setback. Nor did Seabrook aside from his plus/minus from being paired mostly with Keith. The only other part of ‘the Core” whose game didn’t come close to matching his ’09-10 campaign was Patrick Kane.
Is Keith a bigger man to come clean? Sure, but if only this season is in fact an aberration.
Keith is lucky he’s a hockey player and a Chicago sports athlete.
Chicago sports fans are defeatist by calling. They don’t expect winning, they root (hope) for it. So, when winning doesn’t come, they’re easily forgiving.
If the expression “playing with the house’s money” is ever apropos, it is with this year’s Blackhawks.
I can’t begin to count how many people have said to me “how many teams repeat?” or “Its been 49 years, Let’s enjoy it” or “did you really expect them to win after losing all those players?”
Its one thing for fans to share those feelings, it’s entirely another for a player to take that bait.
This season the Chicago Blackhawks carried over their ’09-10 promotional slogan “One Goal”, a not-so surreptitiously implied company objective stating their purpose to win a Stanley Cup.
Unfortunately at least one player didn’t share in the enthusiasm for “One Goal.”
And now it becomes clearer why the Blackhawks were almost on the outside of the playoffs looking in after game number 82 this season.
In conclusion, Keith’s admission also raises questions about management and the coach’s decision to overextend Keith many nights over the regular season. No one should know Keith better than his coaches. If he wasn’t mentally ‘there’ at points during the year, then why was he relied on so heavily?
Jordan Hendry wasn’t used early on in the season. John Scott’s place on this team is the sketch that didn’t go over the first 20 nights, but Quenneville refuses to take it out of the show. Jassen Cullimore did a decent job but he and Nick Boynton, with their mileage, were never given a break an eventually crashed. Nick Leddy was brought on at least three months too soon. All factors in Keith eating ridiculous amounts of minutes, but if he was struggling mentally management should’ve found better options.
Again, if we’re quick to notarize Keith’s lackluster season and the excuse/non-excuse defense of it, then we should also acknowledge that management should have seen this coming all along. After all, they are in the positions to make those decisions because they’re a lot smarter than the rest of us. If they did, they sure didn’t plan for it.