This story originally ran in the June 17, 2010 issue. Subscribe to Sports Illustrated Magazine. Special Championship Offer — Get a 2015 Commemorative Chicago Blackhawks Book and Framed Cover.
Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook doesn’t remember exactly when he first met Duncan Keith. It was probably at some prospect camp that the Blackhawks held after Seabrook was drafted in the first round in 2003, he says. But it wasn’t as if the skies opened up or a chorus of angels started singing when they shook hands, which just goes to show that when you meet your hockey soul mate, it doesn’t always leave an impression. Seven years later Keith and Seabrook will go down as an unforgettable—and all but inseparable—defensive pair that helped deliver a championship to a Stanley Cup-starved city.
For these Blackhawks, great things seem to come in pairs. But unlike Chicago’s sublime forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the two high-end draft picks who were billed as the future of the team even before they ever suited up for the same game, the best defensive pair in the NHL this season emerged more slowly and more organically, building chemistry over many shifts and many years of sharing the same ice.
“In the new NHL it’s hard to keep two guys together for so long,” says former Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon. “It turned out to be ideal. They're a perfect match.”
The 6' 1", 196-pound Keith, a lefthanded shot, offers speed and maneuverability on the ice, while Seabrook, a righty with a quick release, is more of the stay-at-home defensive type. He uses his 6' 3", 218-pound frame to protect the puck and muscle opponents. “They gave themselves the nicknames Thunder and Lightning”, Blackhawks center Patrick Sharp says (Thunder being Seabrook, Lightning referring to Keith). “It applies to them.”
As a tandem they’re symbolic of the new breed of defensemen that’s coming of age in the post-lockout NHL, in a game that puts a premium on speed and skill over clutch and grab. “They’re tough to play against,” Flyers forward Daniel Brière says. “They move the puck really well. They’re not overly physical, but when they move the puck that well, it makes it harder to get a good forecheck in.”
Seabrook and Keith, who’ve logged big minutes playing against the league’s top lines, were crucial to Chicago’s leading the Western Conference in goal differential in 2009-10. (Keith finished the season at an excellent +21, Seabrook a +20.) They’ve also been at the heart of the Blackhawks’ shift to the puck-possession game that has come to define the team.
Yet just because they’re part of the next generation of defensemen doesn’t mean that hockey’s long-standing ethos doesn’t still apply. In the second period of Chicago’s series-clinching Game 4 win against the Sharks in the conference finals, Keith was manning the point on the power play when the Sharks’ Patrick Marleau let loose a hard clearing attempt from the slot. The puck collided with Keith’s face.
“Unlucky play,” Keith said with a shrug a couple of days later. “I knew right away my teeth were smashed in.”
Keith says that as he hurriedly skated to the bench, he could feel seven of his front teeth either hanging on by fibrous threads or rattling around in his mouth. “I coughed one up,” he told reporters, prompting winces from those assembled. “It probably could have been a lot worse if I got hit in the jaw more.” About 6½ minutes after the smashmouth play, Keith was back on the ice. No harm done. Although, as Seabrook suggested, “it definitely doesn’t make him look any better.”
When they broke into the league together in 2005-06, Keith was a lanky defenseman out of Michigan State who had spent two years in the AHL, in part developing his build. Seabrook, meanwhile, weaned in the Western Hockey League, was looking to trim some of his adolescent bulk. Because Chicago had few defensive options then, the two were pushed into the NHL ahead of schedule, and the fact that they started their careers on a struggling team proved a boon. They were given major minutes almost immediately and gained valuable experience.
Keith and Seabrook were paired in their second season and have been an even-strength fixture ever since. Late in the 2009-10 season, after defenseman Brian Campbell went down with a broken collarbone and rib, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville tried splitting up Keith and Seabrook to balance his defensive pairs. The experiment lasted 10 games.
“Playing them apart just doesn’t work,” says Tallon, a former NHL defenseman and now the general manager of the Panthers. “You look back in history, and [early 1970s Blackhawks tandem] Bill White and Pat Stapleton were that way. They really had great chemistry together. In my best years I played with Keith Magnuson. He was a stay-at-home, trustworthy guy, and I was the offensive risk-taking guy. You have to have the right chemistry and combination.”
Along with their complementary skill sets, Keith and Seabrook have benefited from familiarity. They shared an apartment in Chicago during their first year in the league and now live just a few blocks apart. In February they went together to Vancouver where they helped Canada on its run to Olympic gold. Over the last five years Keith and Seabrook have spent so much time within 10 feet of each other, it’s a wonder they aren’t finishing each other’s sentences as well as checks. “It’s like the Sedin twins [Daniel and Henrik] in Vancouver,” says Chicago defenseman Brent Sopel. “They know exactly what’s going on. They know exactly where the other is going, because they’ve played with each other so long. It’s like, at the end of the day, you know exactly how your spouse is going to react to something.”
Teammates joke that Keith and Seabrook do, in fact, mimic an old married couple off the ice, bickering in that particular way. With such different personalities—Seabrook is the goofy one given to acting out and ribbing his teammates; Keith is quieter and more serious—it seems they are living embodiments of the old saying that opposites attract.
While Keith, 26, signed a 13-year, $72 million extension last December, Seabrook, 25, has two years remaining on a contract that pays him $3.5 million a season. Offense pays the bills in the NHL, and Keith’s 69 points this season (Seabrook had 30) were second among all defensemen in the league. His upside remains enormous. A couple of years ago, when the team went through physicals, former Blackhawks skating coach and retired Olympic speed skater Dan Jansen noted that the only person he’s seen with a higher VO2 max (a measure of aerobic capacity and fitness) than Keith was Lance Armstrong. It’s safe to say that the 28 minutes of ice time Keith averaged during these playoffs (about four minutes more than Seabrook; for one thing, Keith generally gets additional time on the power play) didn’t take a toll on his body. Keith’s athleticism and ability to recover have always set him apart. “When we saw him at Michigan State, he skated like his feet never touched the ice,” Tallon says.
Yet for all his dynamic ability—he has drawn comparisons to Norris Trophy winner and skating wizard Scott Niedermayer—and all his deceptiveness with the puck, Keith understands and appreciates what Seabrook does to help trigger his game. Just as Rangers great Brian Leetch thrived next to Jeff Beukeboom and the Oilers’ Paul Coffey was helped by being alongside Charlie Huddy, Keith benefits from the security Seabrook brings.
The phrase thunder and lightning connotes an approaching storm. With Keith and Seabrook in the Blackhawks’ fold, the champagne showers that came down after the Cup clincher may only be the beginning of the reign in Chicago.
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