Duncan Keith opens up, Admits to lacking interest this season


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.

ChrisBlock@TheThirdManIn.com

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19 Responses to Duncan Keith opens up, Admits to lacking interest this season

  1. Chris,

    I think it is safe to say that we all sort of knew this was the case with several of the core players this year – I respect Keith for his openness. I also think that now that many of us have take the Cup Glasses off, we can see, as you so poignantly pointed out, spots where management could have and should have stepped in to make sure that the mental and physical tiredness of the players was addressed.

    I personally think that the hit on Seabrook was the wake up call that somehow shook players like Keith, Hossa and Kaner out of the fog they have been in. They have their passion back and no amount of money can simply motivate a human being to rediscover that passion – it is a highly personal and almost elusive path.

    I am just thrilled that they found it at the same time that Roberto Luongo had his annual First Round breakdown … Unless the Canucks can find that magic pill for Luongo – I think, now that the Hawks have their mental edge back, we can move into the next round and go much deeper into the playoffs than many of us suspected a month ago.

    • Hey Mary,

      I don’t mind the confession as much as I do the timing. Its the day after what was far and away his best game in a year. The Hawks are down 3-2 in the series and snuck into the playoffs on the last day and not on their own accord.

      I’m bothered by it, but I’m not suggesting there’s a right or a wrong way to feel about it. I completely understand Keith’s struggles, but a lot of people won’t. Some will hear that; see that the team snuck in and now is facing the President’s trophy Canucks and think “Hey wait, where would the Hawks be if Keith came to camp better prepared, more excited or was more interested at times during the regular season?”

      If I was his teammate, I’d be a little upset. If the media was doing its due diligence on this story, the natural follow up now is to go around the locker room to the other Cup returnees, specifically the Olympic guys and ask them for a response to Keith’s comments and if they’ve gone through the same things. I agree Keith’s honesty, if he even meant for it to slip out – which is separate debate, is admirable but his honesty is also an isolated incident.

      Lets just use Kane for example. We can all look at Kane’s season and now after hearing Keith open up presume that Kane probably felt and when through similar things and periods as Keith explained. Is it fair to Kane now if a reporter puts a microphone in Kane’s face and says “so, did you struggle to be interested this year?”

      Most will let Keith off the hook because his honesty is , an isolated incident in sports. I think its also because he’s a homegrown Hawk product. Mary, can you imagine the reaction today if Brian Campbell said the same?

      If he was going to say what he did, I’d rather he waited until the season was over. Whenever that was. I’m guessing his teammates feel the same way.

  2. “Are 72 million dollars not motivation enough?”

    apparently not when the contract is guaranteed.

    “I like to work out and train a lot”

    then why does he have less upper body strength than I do…and I haven’t lifted a weight since the demise of my college baseball career circa 11 years ago.

    Anyway, good stuff Chris. Strange that I don’t recall reading about any of stuff with Lidstrom or Bourque when they were cashing in mantles of awards, metals, and in Lidstrom’s case, multiple rings.

    • More than anything, the timing of this is just bizarre. I’m fairly certain he didn’t mean for it to come out. I can’t believe he woke up Friday morning and thought to himself “you know, I’m gonna tell the world I didn’t do the right things to prepare over the summer, I wasn’t excited for this season and I struggled to be interested at times.”

      We all struggle with the day to day grind in our lives. But the NHL is a different animal. It is a business. The ‘Hawks players don’t owe anyone another championship but there’s more to it. I can see how some fans who see their ticket invoices rise after Keith and Kane and others get big raises then hear what Keith came out with would then be upset. They’re not getting what they paid for. Its a real interesting debate. Some say hail the honesty. But the truth will hurt some. If he doesn’t say anything (which the Hawks would’ve preferred) then fans walk away chalking it up to a bad year. But now you know differently and can presume he’s not the only one in the room who feels that way. And moving forward, anytime they go into a week or two slump, we’ll all be wondering and thinking back to Keith’s comments here. Is that fair? I don’t think so. But that will happen.

  3. Michael Jordan retired from basketball in the middle of 6 championships in part because he couldn’t deal with the regular season after playing in all of those playoff games.

    This is NOT unheard of. Players who haven’t gone through it aren’t always ready to “start over from the beginning” after winning it all. You no longer have the adrenaline rush or the intensity of focus. Some guys have to go through the process to learn how to cope.

    Keith obviously didn’t say it particularly well but I completely understand. Heck anyone that has won a poker tournament knows what he is saying. It is hard to start over in the next tournament once you have experienced the rush of playing at the final table. You just want to “fast forward” till you get to the “good stuff” again and you just can’t do that…

    • Dale, I’m not going to disagree with the crux of your point but I don’t see the comparables.

      I’ve heard a lot of speculation as to why Jordan retired after ’93 and that wasn’t the leading candidate. Regardless, you’re comparing a 27-year old Keith, with 1 Stanley Cup to a 30-year old Michael Jordan with 3 consecutive NBA championships. Yeah, ’93 wasn’t as smooth a year as the previous two championship seasons, but that had a lot to do with the league catching up to that roster.

      You’ll have to help me with poker, I know the top players have endorsements and such, but in poker tournaments aren’t you competing for your pay day? So, sure a player would like to fast forward to the “good stuff” as you say, but you also know the “good stuff” never comes if you don’t focus and put the work in, so to speak, to get there. Correct?

      As I wrote here, I think any rational person can understand what Keith’s saying and even sympathize with him. He probably didn’t mean for it to come out and no he didn’t do a good job of articulating it, more likely because he didn’t intend to say it.

      The timing of it is just surreal. If this were any other major team in town it would be a huge distraction. Michael Jordan didn’t get in front of the media in April of ’93 and say something like this. I’m sure if Horace Grant or BJ Armstrong would have, Jordan probably would have beat them silly. Keith’s comments have impact on everyone in that room. This year and moving forward. As I commented to Lane, now next season if the Hawks go through a week or two slump, a lot of fans will think back to these quotes and conclude that the team simply isn’t interested. His teammates don’t deserve that.

      • Steve from Rockford

        Also do not forget, Michael Jordan’s father was brutally murdered and Jordan retired to go play baseball in the aftermath. I agree with Chris, you cannot compare Michael Jordan to Duncan Kieth right now. The motivations are very different.

        Also, what is it with some hockey fans and the hatred of all things basketball? Not pointing anyone specifically It’s frankly idiotic, no wonder so many hockey fans are looked at as morons.

    • “Michael Jordan retired from basketball in the middle of 6 championships in part because he couldn’t deal with the regular season after playing in all of those playoff games.”

      you mean when Jordan was going to get suspended from the NBA for gambling err ah I mean when he went on his minor league baseball sabbatical? I also don’t see this as a very good comp mainly for the reason of his impending suspension that was getting swept under the rug publicly….allegedly….factually. Regardless no one had more drive than Jordan. Dude was cracking opponents ribs in pick-up games.

  4. RICH LINDBLOOM

    Confession is good for the soul. not that his feet shouldn’t be held to the fire though. That was a lot to think about Chris. makes you wonder if a player like Mikita or Savard or Wilson ever felt that way.

  5. Keith hinted at his motivational problems back in November, so this admission doesn’t surprise me in the least.

    Assuming the ‘Hawks don’t repeat as Cup champions, it will be interesting to see how Keith approaches his off-season and the 2011-12 campaign.

    Will he be a hungry, motivated player with his team looking to again reach the mountain top? Hopefully so, as a “contract-year” raising of effort isn’t likely given that he has 12 years to go on his contract.

    I would think consideration should be given to handing Keith’s “A” to Seabrook or Campbell (if he’s still around). It’s hard to take on leadership when you’ve admitted to be lacking motivation in games you’re being paid well to care about.

  6. I don’t think Keith’s comments are necessarily as important as what happens from here on out. The fact that he acknowledged having a busted give-a-damn means that he’s aware of it, and it can be fixed.

    He’s played the last three games like a world-class defenseman. Right now, everyone on that team is ratcheted up. If they stayed locked in, I honestly think our preseason prediction of the WCF will happen.

    • Fair enough. There are many different ways to look at this and few would necessarily be right or wrong.

      My concern would be the timing, how it affects outsider’s perception of the rest of that room and from a business perspective moving forward. Its hard to dog a guy for being honest, but its easy to let this slide when the team is winning and it opens up a can of worms potentially moving forward. He’s also a team captain.

  7. I think the question we should be asking is just because athletes are paid ridiculous amounts of money, does that mean they should love their job all the time? Has anyone thought that some players end up in the NHL or NBA or NFL or what-have-you simply because they’re just good at it?

    While enjoying your job as a professional athlete may be a bit easier than others (sports are usually fun and the gratuitous paycheck will definitely make the constant traveling a little better), why do we expect our professional athletes to feel the same way about the sport as we do? They may like it, but they may not be in love with it.

    The fact is that we can’t expect them to live and die by the sport and enjoy every second they are playing. Many people in their own respective jobs don’t feel the same way, finding their own hobbies and passions elsewhere. Remember, they get paid millions of dollars in the first place simply because the fans allow it. People drop a couple hundred for a few seats in the third balcony. Another hundred for their favorite player’s jersey, and thirty or so for a couple beers and ice cream for the kids. What came first, the fans’ splurging or the million-dollar contracts?

    Keith cannot be the only athlete that feels rundown at times, and honestly, good for the NHL that players can say things like this without getting hounded by the media.

    I think Keith’s reawakening of sorts in Game 4 and 5 shows he may finally be catching on to what the optimists have been saying all year: we still have a good team. Maybe not as obviously dominant as last season, but still formidable in their own right. We can argue that he should have realized this before our 82nd game, but at least he’s doing it now. And regardless of where we end up this year, I really don’t think we’ll see a repeat of this year’s slump.

  8. Steve from Rockford

    I actually do find it odd that Keith admitted this, and would not be surprised if he wishes he could take it back. Imagine one of us going up and telling our boss that we just are not very interested in doing our jobs right now, and that is why our performance has been so bad.

    I however am not surprised that this is the case and am in total agreement that it is a sentiment shared by other players in the locker room. You look at Kane and all that he has gotten himself into this year (yes its his fault, he is an adult and adults face adult consequences) and wonder what we do not know about him. I wonder what the coaching staff new about this and if they attempted to do anything about it. The team stunk it up for a large majority of the season. First they acted pompus, taking a page from the Bears book. Basically a “how dare you question us, can’t you see how good we are”?. After things got dire it changed from a “we are going to get hot” to a “we gotta get hot”. I would loved to be a fly in that locker room in the final month or two of the season. Were these guys shocked that they found themselves in the position they were in? Did they honestly believe they could just take off a majority of the season and just flip a switch at the end?

    Its interesting how these guys are treated. I remember the Sox end of the year collapse the season following the World Series win. The media was ruthless, the Sox team did not get a pass. Furthermore, no player asked for one, they appeared as upset as the rest of us were. However, the Hawks are often given a pass by the media and rabidly defended by a segment of the fanbase. Certain ones (like Kane) are provided excuse after excuse by a population of the fanbase. I honestly feel that the relationship with these fans and the players are like those of a mother who believe that his child can do no wrong. Thing is, it is often these kids are the worst, because they know they can get away with it.

    I really do not know why this occurs, maybe its because hockey players seem so much like the “average joe”? But on the other hand, plenty of Chicago baseball players seem like a guy you could “have a beer with” (Paul Konerko being a good example)… Paulie would not be given a pass if he said “yeah my team is slumping now, but I am not really interested”. He would be questioned if pictures of him allegedly at a bar the night before he missed practice appeared.

    I do think the point of not wanting to rock the boat is a good one Chris. Thankfully we have blogs that are willing to take a critical and fair look when needed. This allows me to get the information that I want without having to purchase the stuff written by the guys that do not want to ask the questions that might make the job they have more difficult. Wonder where they get that idea that they can do that from?

  9. Of course the phenomena Keith mentions is true. Anyone who has competed in athletics at high levels knows the level of physical and mental effort required to win a competitive game ‘takes you to another level.’ This level is the result of continued focus, desire, and extraordinary levels of effort. When a repeat performance is required in the context of the stakes not being the same, it is extremely difficult, and rare, to simply ‘turn on’ this ‘higher level’ of effort. So, for one perhaps not as highly articulate – e.g., Keith, to characterize this as “lacking interest” is understandable.

    However, he should know better than to say anything like this. I still have very high regard for these prof hockey players, including Keith. They are incredible athletes and have achieved remarkable success – even the 4th liners. But, he should have known that his comments would be interpreted as ‘not trying your hardest.’

  10. Anyone who feels athletes are immune from the same mental, physical, and emotional ups and downs as every other human being is just not thinking.

    Journalists certainly produce mediocre or worse columns on a regular basis. How much worse might they look if day after day their efforts were directly compared with the best in the business? Same with jobs from welding to actuary. I assure you that every person that reads this column, if they’re honest, will admit to many times when they’ve come to work tired, unmotivated, looking forward to Friday, or distracted by family and other personal matters. Money does not negate the tendency to mail it in some days.

    Where do we think the expression “I need a vacation” comes from?

    Too many sports fans and writers have been brainwashed by Nike ads and “coach-speak” that posits athletes are always at their best, or they are somehow lazy or quitters.

    That says more about the gullibility of the critic than it does the commitment of the athlete.

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