Looking back, Duncan Keith didn’t exactly know what he was getting into.
That leap of faith, though, jumping from college to major junior, wound up being a pivotal moment in what would be a star-filled hockey career.
Twenty years ago this week, Keith joined the Kelowna Rockets for what turned out to be a six-month stint, and the future NHL star wound up having a massive impact on the Rockets — arguably the largest in franchise history.
“Probably,” longtime Rockets president and general manager Bruce Hamilton said of Keith’s impact. “He was dangerous because of his speed and he saw the ice so well.
“He’s the most decorated player to ever play for us, and probably a significant challenge for anybody else to get all the accolades that he’s achieved with regards to Stanley Cups, Olympic gold medals and the different trophies that he’s won.”
Up until the 2002-03 season, Kelowna had been a decent franchise, but not a winning one. In fact, the team had just one division title, in 2000-01, and no playoff success in its 10 prior seasons.
In the summer of 2001, though, Hamilton landed Chuck Kobasew, who left Boston College and the NCAA to play in the WHL, and the wheels of franchise change began slowly moving.
To bolster the high-scoring and future NHL forward, Kelowna made a series of trades that paid off during the 2001-02 campaign.
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Following a mediocre regular season, the Rockets caught fire and went on their first long playoff run, sweeping rival Kamloops in the first round before eventually bowing out in the Western Conference final in six games.
Despite being hot, Kelowna couldn’t match the Kootenay Ice, who went on to win the league title and Memorial Cup that season.
For 2002-03, Kobasew left to play pro hockey, and Hamilton was looking for a new piece to put them over the top. Enter Keith, the smooth-skating defenceman from nearby Penticton who left Michigan State during the Christmas break.
In his first game with Kelowna, on Dec. 27, 2002, Keith scored in a 4-1 home-ice win over Prince George. The next night, he logged two assists in a 5-4 win over Kamloops.
“Right at the time, it was my decision to leave,” Keith recalled during an interview with Global News. “It was a pretty stressful time for myself.
“I think it had been around one or two days of being on the team, settling in, and just knowing how happy I was that I had made that decision. I knew it was the best decision that I had made.
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“The camaraderie of the group, how tight-knit it was. It was a special feeling, being around that. The environment that Bruce created, it trickled all the way down.”
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With Keith anchoring the blue line and quarterbacking the power play, the Rockets went on a ridiculous tear during the second half of the 2002-03 season, winning 31 of 37 games (31-2-4) and outscoring their opponents 178-73.
Their winning ways included a 23-game unbeaten streak (22 wins, one tie) before losing 6-4 to the Kootenay Ice before a sellout crowd of 6,272. The rink seats 6,007.
Speaking of sellouts, prior to Keith’s arrival, Kelowna had just one sellout during the first half of the season. After his arrival, there were nine, with the largest listed at 6,557, a 4-3 win over Kamloops on Feb. 15.
In the playoffs, of Kelowna’s 10 home games, nine were sellouts.
Mind you, Kelowna’s success wasn’t all Keith.
That season, the Rockets’ deep roster included two future NHL defencemen in Shea Weber and Josh Gorges plus future NHL forward Blake Comeau. There was also offensive blue-liner Tomas Slovak, who played for Slovakia at the world juniors that season, plus Jesse Schultz, who was second in league scoring with 53 goals and 104 points.
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In an interview from Dec. 27, 2002, Hamilton said “our fans will definitely benefit from (Keith), as he’s an exciting player. He’s one of the finest skaters I’ve ever seen. And we fully anticipate him being back next year as an over-ager.”
The Chicago Blackhawks, who drafted Keith 54th overall in 2002, would assign him to the AHL the next season, ruining Hamilton’s prediction.
During the 2002-03 season, Kelowna led the league in wins (51) and points (109), and was the only team that season to crack the 300-goal barrier, with 311. The next closest team was Seattle at 280.
What followed next was a long playoff run, a league title and a trip to the Memorial Cup, the franchise’s first. At Quebec City, the Rockets finished a disappointing third, but the groundwork as a successful franchise had been laid.
“The group of players who played through those two seasons fed that down to the next group coming in,” said Hamilton. “The term ‘culture change’ gets advertised lots, but that was really what we were looking for then.”
And playing an important part was Keith’s decision to leave college and play in the WHL.
Keith said there was an adjustment period, but that he settled in.
“The time I was in Kelowna, it was huge for me and my development,” said Keith. “There was a lot of growth off the ice as well, just from having to make that tough decision to voluntarily leave your team midway through a season and then join another group.
“And on the ice, it’s a competitive league. You have elite players and then the travel. It’s your first real taste of something similar to the grind of professional hockey.
“Getting that experience of having that grind, playing as many games as you do, the travel, learning how to take care of your body, the commitment off the ice you need to have … that’s a huge part of it, and I don’t think people necessarily realize it.”
Hamilton says he has “a lot of time for Duncan because he had tremendous courage.”
“A lot of players tried to run at him because he had come from college, and they thought he was going to be somewhat soft, but he wasn’t,” Hamilton said.
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“He had the heart of a lion. And he played to win, every day. There was no in-between with him. He was a great competitor and that’s why he’s had the career he’s had.”
Looking ahead, Hamilton said now that Keith has retired, the Rockets will hold a day in his honour, though that day has yet to be determined.
To this day, Keith says he keeps in touch with some of his former Kelowna teammates, chief among them former captain Ryan Cuthbert.
“It shows just how close the team was,” said Keith. “I know that’s a big reason why we had the success that year, but I’ve definitely kept in touch with a lot of the guys.”