The Blackhawks were playing out the string last season when former Hawks defenseman Adrian Aucoin brought his kids to the United Center for a game.
The family headed to the locker room afterward to see old friends, especially Duncan Keith, who had lived at the Aucoin house for a brief period early in his career.
Keith is such a family favorite that Aucoin’s son Kyle, a Harvard commit, patterned his game not after his father – who played 1,108 NHL games and is a former Hawks captain – but Keith.
As the family said hello to players and trainers, the kids began looking around and noticed something: Keith was nowhere to be found.
“I said, ‘I guarantee I know where he is,’” Aucoin said. “So I take them around the training room, through the equipment room. He’s still working out.”
This was a meaningless game late in a lost season, and despite the allure of a long summer break just days away, Keith, who has three Stanley Cups and two Norris trophies, was focused on his next season, his next game, his next shift.
“That’s just the way he is,” Aucoin said.
On Saturday night at the United Center against the Blues, he will play in the 1,000th NHL game of a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Fame career.
“It’s obviously a huge accomplishment,” Keith said. “I’m proud of it. More than anything, I’m proud to be in the NHL this long and play with a lot of great players and a great organization for a great coach. Just all the good players and good guys that I’ve been able to be on this ride with.”
The ride isn’t nearly over. Keith, 35, is in the ninth year of a 13-year, $72 million contract, and he said last season that he’d like to play until he’s 45, which might raise eyebrows for some, but not for arguably the most fit player in the league.
With his extraordinarily powerful legs, Keith still has one of the fastest first steps in the NHL. But that only makes one of Aucoin’s memories of Keith that much funnier.
“He’s one of the slowest people at doing everything in the world except when he’s on the ice or in training,” Aucoin said. “He eats slow, he talks slow, he walks slow, he responds to things slowly. It’s hilarious.
“We’d just sit there and I’d laugh because he would eat slower than all the kids. I’d be like, ‘Duncs, how are you the fastest player I know but you’re just slow at everything else?’ He was like, ‘I don’t know, my mom taught me to chew my food.’ He takes everything to a new level of eating properly, training properly. Everything he does has a purpose.”
Keith has the most seniority of any Chicago athlete, if you start from when he was taken in the second round of the 2002 draft, 54th overall. If you start from when Keith made his NHL debut, he’s tied, fittingly, with fellow Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook, whose career also began on Oct. 5, 2005.
As defensemen who have literally been at each other’s side almost every step of the way, the two will be linked for their sustained excellence, their winning, and for a ferociously competitive nature.
“It’s been a long marriage,” said Seabrook, who beat Keith to playing in his 1,000th game late last season. “We’ve had our marital spats over the years and all that, but he’s a great guy. It was never personal between the two of us. We wanted to win, especially when we were playing a lot of minutes together in a lot of big games. We wanted the best out of each other, and that was part of pushing each other to be the best.
“That was when our fights would boil over, but [when] the game was over, we were back to good buddies, best buddies and just enjoying it. We’ve always had the same goal: we want to win. We want to continue to win, we want to continue to give ourselves opportunities to win the Stanley Cup.”
Joel Quenneville took over as Hawks coach early in Keith’s fourth season and watched as he grew from being one of the NHL’s better defensemen to a long run being in the conversation as the best.
What Quenneville treasures the most about Keith is that he simply plays the game. Season after season, game after game, shift after shift.
“The more he plays, the more he likes it, the better he plays,” Quenneville said. “For a number of years and a number of games, and the bigger the games, the more he’d play. It’s not normal. But now not too many guys are up over 25 [minutes] in today’s game. … But he’s done it for a long time.”
For 1,000 games, to be exact.