FORT FRANCES—If you’ve been hoping to meet one of the NHL’s brightest young stars, who just so happens to have a Fort Frances connection to boot, next Monday is your big chance.
Chicago Blackhawks’ defenceman Duncan Keith is returning to the town where he grew up, with July 21 coined as “Duncan Keith Day” in his honour.
The event gets underway at 5 p.m. at the Ice for Kids Arena with a ceremony introducing Keith through presentations by influential members of the local hockey community.
There will then be an opportunity to meet Keith, get autographs, and enjoy a barbecue in the arena parking lot.
The event will conclude around 7 p.m.
“I came through four years ago with my brother and one of our buddies while I was playing in the minors, but it was kind of a spontaneous thing,” Keith noted from Penticton, B.C., where he was involved with a hockey clinic.
“I didn’t get to see everybody, so hopefully this will be a good chance to catch up with some people and have some fun.”
Keith and his family moved to Fort Frances in 1985 when father, Dave, was transferred from Winnipeg to fill the role as assistant manager of the CIBC branch here.
At the time of the transfer, older brother Cameron was four (born in 1981), Duncan was two, (1983), and sister Rebecca was six months old (1984).
Duncan’s mother, Jean, initially stayed at home with her young family and was kept busy taking them to and from the rink.
Once her children were in school, Jean Keith resumed her career in the health field and worked for many years at Rainycrest Home for the Aged here.
Dave Keith recalled being very excited to come to Fort Frances as he knew his boys would have the opportunity to play the sport they loved in a true hockey town.
He enrolled his boys into both the Fort Frances Minor Hockey Association and the Border Skating Club. His daughter also became active in the figure skating program, and later with ringette and girls’ hockey.
“He was always there pushing me along, but never did it in a negative way,” Keith said of his father. “He was never the type of dad to scream and yell if I played a bad game.
“I remember coming back from the rink sometimes in Tom Thumb or Atom and I’d be crying because I felt I could play better and by the time I got home, I could recall that he would have me thinking that I played the best game of my life.
“He was a great supporter of me, but my mom was the one taking me to the old Memorial Arena for the 5:30 a.m. practices, sitting up there for the first half-hour in her nurse’s uniform,” Keith added.
Keith eventually played for the Times Tigers in Tom Thumb before getting his ‘AA’ beginnings with the Atom team (Pinewood Sports and Marine Ltd.) and then later PeeWee (Knights of Columbus).
“I played forward and some defence with the Fort Frances Times Tigers until I was eight or nine and then I was put on defence,” he recalled. “I liked it. You can control more of the game and set the plays up from defence.”
Later, Cameron Keith was recruited and billeted along with another local player (Aaron Grynol) by the Kenora ‘AAA’ Bantam team, which played in a Manitoba league.
A year or so later, Thunder Bay began recruiting Duncan Keith to try out for the ‘AAA’ team there.
Around the same time, Dave Keith had been unsuccessful in obtaining the manager’s position at the local CIBC branch after a retirement had opened up the position.
He then began submitting applications elsewhere to obtain a manager’s position at a destination wherein he could kickstart his career and still provide a high level of hockey for his boys to continue their careers.
Shortly thereafter, the manager’s position became open in Summerland, B.C. (about 10 minutes from Penticton).
Dave Keith was well aware that Penticton had had previous success similar as Fort Frances on the hockey stage (the Penticton Vees won the Allan Cup in the early 1950s).
As well, Penticton had a rich history in junior hockey with the Penticton Knights winning the Centennial Cup in the mid-’80s and having had several high-profile juniors previously play there (Paul Kariya, Brett Hull, and others).
Dave and Jean Keith both are now retired in Penticton while Cameron and Rebecca both are enrolled in a Chartered Accountant program and will begin working for KPMG in the fall.
Duncan Keith credits a lot of his development to his beginnings in Fort Frances, including the extra skating he participated in at the east end rink, along with the coaching of Gib and Bill Tucker.
He turns 25 today and has a busy week ahead, including the Blackhawks Convention on the weekend (where the city will have the opportunity to meet past and present Hawks’ players) before heading to Fort Frances immediately after.
Keith’s career culminated in not only an all-star nod this past season, but also a trip to the world championship, representing Canada on home soil with and against some of the world’s best players.
“You grow up watching them play and then all of a sudden you are playing right with them,” he recalled.
“It was tough right at the end losing in the final, but the whole experience was something I’ll never forget and hopefully I can build on it for more years to come.”
(Fort Frances Times)