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Canada runs on Duncan

Duncan Keith definitely considers himself a product of Northwestern Ontario. The Chicago Blackhawks defenceman and rising star, named to the Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team on Dec.
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Chicago Blackhawks defender Duncan Keith has nine goals and 42 points in 46 games. (Leith Dunick)
Duncan Keith definitely considers himself a product of Northwestern Ontario.

The Chicago Blackhawks defenceman and rising star, named to the Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team on Dec. 30, was born in Winnipeg, but moved to Fort Frances before he was two. It’s there, in the mill town on the American border, where Keith began his rise to fame, developing into the rising star hockey star he is today.

Though he and his family left when he was 14 to further his hockey career in Penticton, B.C., his ties to the community of 2,400 remain strong, he said last Saturday, before his team’s 6-5 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild at the Excel Centre in downtown St. Paul.

“They’re huge. That’s where I grew up most of my childhood and where I learned to play hockey. I’ve got all of my minor hockey memories playing in Fort Frances and playing in Thunder Bay and Kenora and Dryden and playing those teams,” Keith said.

“That’s a big part of my life and I’ll always remember those times. I’m still keeping in touch with a lot of the people in Fort Frances.”

On his way to a possible Norris Trophy nomination and armed with a 13-year deal worth $72 million, Keith and Brent Seabrook have formed one of the best blue-line tandems the NHL has to offer. The 26-year-old chews up ice time, outmanoeuvres the opposition with his blinding speed and can put the puck in the net, which he’s done nine times this season.

Those are the exact characteristics Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman was looking for when he named the Blackhawks alternate captain to what will surely be the most-scrutinized hockey team history has yet to encounter – win or lose in Vancouver.

The enormity of the honour isn’t lost on Keith, who spent two seasons at Michigan State, part of one in Kelowna and two-year stint apprenticing in the American Hockey League before making the NHL grade for good in 2005-06.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do that and I’m going to make sure I make the most of it,” Keith said.

Expected to be paired with the familiar Seabrook at the Games, Keith said knowing his defensive partner will make the adjustment to the international game all that easier.

“Obviously we’re real comfortable with each other out on the ice. We know what each other is going to do. We’ve played with one another for a long time now. The more you play with somebody, the more you get used to what they’re going to do and what their tendencies are out on the ice. So that should only help us there when we get there,” he said.

Keith added he plans to feel the need for speed in Vancouver, knowing he’ll be the catalyst of a transition game that’s going to have be running at full throttle, especially when teams like the Swedes, and especially the Alexander Ovechkin-led Russians, are on the dance card.

“I think there (are) great players from every team,” he said. “You never want to take any team lightly. But definitely the Russians have a lot of skilled players and anytime you’re playing skilled players, you try to take away their time and space and not give them any time to make plays. It’s easier said than done, but I think just being solid defensively, game in and game out is the goal,” said Keith, whose Hawks made a semifinal run last season and are poised to get at least that far in 2009-10, leading the Western Conference with 66 points, despite losses to the Wild and equally inept Ducks over the past seven days.

Keith, one of four players with Northwestern Ontario ties going to the Games – Mike Richards (Kenora), Chris Pronger (Dryden) and Eric Staal (Thunder Bay) being the others – said it’s a sure sign someone’s doing something right in the region.

Growing up it was all about hockey, he said, and he expects the cheering will be even louder with world hockey domination on the line. The applause will likely be loudest in towns like Fort Frances, where heroes like Keith have helped people forget, if only for a minute, the hardships that have levelled their communities.

“I think all of Canada is going to be cheering pretty hard for our Canadian team. And like I said, it’s going to be fun to be a part of it.”