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Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith gets deserving all-star nod

Let's see, who would Duncan Keith like to be paired with on defence when he skates in the NHL's annual all-star game?

Nicklas Lidstrom, Dion Phaneuf, Chris Pronger, Zergei Zubov or Ed Jovanovski? It doesn't matter to him. "It'll be a huge honour to be there," the Chicago Blackhawks blue-liner said after being selected Thursday for the showcase game in Atlanta on Jan. 27. "It's definitely not something I expected.

"To be going to an all-star game with guys like that is a great chance for me. I'm grateful to be going. I'm going to take in every moment when I'm there."

He'll be the only first-timer among the Western Conference defencemen - and definitely the least known, compared to the other five, by fans outside Chicago. Blackhawks fans know him well. He's been a horse.

The 24-year-old Canadian leads his team in average ice time - 24 minutes 31 seconds - and coach Denis Savard has been using him more often lately. He played nearly 34 minutes in Montreal on Tuesday, when the teams went to overtime.

Keith has five goals and 12 assists in 43 games, and a sparkling plus-14 plus-minus rating on a team that's been having a difficult go of it because of a long list of injuries.

"He has been an unbelievable asset to our organization," says GM Dale Tallon. "He's turned into quite a player.

"He's worked extremely hard to get to where he's at and he's still improving."

Keith played minor hockey growing up in Fort Frances, Ont.

"I played forward and defence until I was eight or nine and then I was put on defence," he said during an interview. "I liked it.

"You can control more of the game playing defence."

He says his father, David Keith, had the strongest influence on his development through encouraging him to strive to be better. His dad coached him in atom. Brothers Gib Tucker, a former Kitchener Rangers player, and Bill Tucker were a big influence, too.

The family moved to Penticton, B.C., and Keith moved up the ranks. Rob McLaughlin is a coach he recalls pointing him in the right direction. He went to Michigan State University, and the team bio of that time states his favourite players were Paul Kariya and Pavel Bure.

What, not a defenceman?

"I liked their speed," he explained. "Besides, Kariya played junior in British Columbia and Bure was with the Canucks."

Keith was Chicago's second-round pick, 54th overall, in the 2002 entry draft. He returned for a second year at MSU, but dreaming of a chance at the NHL as soon as possible he left during the season and signed with the WHL's Kelowna Rockets.

"When we drafted him, he was 5-11 and 160 pounds," said Tallon.

Now he's 6-0 and 190.

"Over time, I slowly but surely gained seven or eight pounds a year, so I've put on 30 pounds of muscle (since draft day) - just a maturity process," he said.

That and a lot of weightlifting.

"His fitness level is phenomenal," says Tallon. "He has an unbelievable desire to get better."

He spent two seasons in the AHL at Norfolk, Va., before moving up the big league for the 2005-2006 season. Trent Yawney was his coach.

"He taught me to play proper D and what it took," said Keith. "It was nice to have somebody at that point in my career willing to take the time to teach me how to be better.

"He deserves a lot of credit for where I am today, that's for sure."

Keith has played 206 NHL games, missing only one.

"He can really skate," said Tallon. "He never gives up.

"He plays against other teams' top lines, and he's still plus-14 so he's doing above and beyond what we expected from him."

Keith enjoys playing for head coach Denis Savard.

"I love his enthusiasm. Every day he comes to the rink, he makes it enjoyable. Practices are awesome. He's upbeat and loves the game. He wants to win. You can't ask for anything more from a coach - he cares for his players and wants to win."

Mark Hardy oversees defencemen, and Keith benefits from his guidance, too.

"He's always giving us pointers and making sure we hold ourselves accountable. He's been great back there keeping it loose. We've got a young group of guys, so sometimes it's important that we're having fun and playing relaxed, and he's done a great job with that."

When the injured players return, the Blackhawks hope to make a February push towards the city's first playoff appearance since 2002 and, after the all-star game, a lot more people will realize just how good a hockey player Duncan Keith has become.

"He's very, very humble," said Tallon. "He's very dedicated.

"He's just a very nice, down-to-earth, normal kid."

Who is becoming a great hockey player.


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