Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith teaching partner Henri Jokiharju to play with bite
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Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith always will have 2010.
He was awarded his first Norris Trophy that year as the NHL’s top defenseman. He made his debut on the NHL First All-Star team. He raised the Stanley Cup for the first time, of course. And he had spent the 2009-10 season getting used to having signed the richest contract in the history of the organization.
Kind of a good year when you really look at it.
But none of the above is what made Keith one of the favorite players — and the Hawks the favorite team — of a soon-to-be 11-year-old boy in Oulu, Finland.
For Henri Jokiharju, it was all about a puck to the face. Not to his own precious mug, mind you, but to Keith’s during Game 4 of the Western Conference finals between the Hawks and Sharks. Patrick Marleau shot the puck, and seven of Keith’s teeth shuffled off this mortal coil.
What happened next is the stuff of Hawks legend and blew young Jokiharju’s mind. Not 10 minutes after staggering off the ice — possibly still in possession of something resembling a mouth — Keith was back in the game to help the Hawks complete a sweep of the Sharks and advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
‘‘He was such a tough guy,’’ recalled Jokiharju, now a 19-year-old rookie playing with the 35-year-old Keith on the Hawks’ blue line. ‘‘And he played 30 minutes every game, so I wanted to be like him. I’ve watched his career [since]. He’s an awesome player.’’
Much attention has been paid to Jokiharju, who has performed well despite the Hawks’ inconsistent overall play. He entered the game Saturday against the Flames in Calgary, Alberta, tied with Keith and captain Jonathan Toews for the team lead in plus/minus at plus-3 and tied with Keith and wing Patrick Kane for the team lead in assists with seven. (Keith and Jokiharju still were looking for their first goal.)
Yet perhaps the biggest key to both defensemen’s success has been the generous, welcoming attitude displayed by Keith, who admitted it wasn’t necessarily in his nature to play crusty old cop to Jokiharju’s wet-behind-the-ears new partner.
‘‘I’m not that old,’’ Keith said. ‘‘I still feel young and see myself as young. But it has turned out to be a nice situation to be in. It has been good for me, too.’’
Keith never met a plane ride he couldn’t spend talking hockey from takeoff to landing. As he has gotten older, the teammates on the other ends of those conversations have gotten older, too. Lately, though, Keith has summoned Jokiharju near and begun to pick his brain. What he has found is that the kid knows a thing or two about a thing or two.
But what it has meant to a teenage rookie is even more meaningful.
‘‘I will always appreciate the way he has accepted me,’’ Jokiharju said. ‘‘It has made me a better player. I watch all the things he does now — how he plays simple, joins the rush, shoots the puck hard, how he practices and trains, how he takes good care of his body. I watch all of it.
‘‘He’s such a good role model for the team and for me. He doesn’t even seem old yet. He’ll be like that the next 10 years, probably. He’s so confident. And all the little plays he makes, all the little things? You can’t learn that.’’
No? Keith has given his protégé a head start in that department. Whether Keith saw himself as the mentor type at first or not, it’s a role he’s sinking his teeth into.