Freak of Nature Duncan Keith Defying Human Limits in Chicago's 2015 Playoff Run

Greg CouchNational ColumnistJune 13, 2015

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith once got on a treadmill and kept going and going until, finally, the treadmill got tired and took a break.

OK, I just made that up. But it wouldn't be a surprise.

Keith's fitness is becoming legendary. His coach and teammates call him a freak. The sheer amount of time he's playing during these playoffs is making people treat him as if he's sprinting an Olympic marathon or pitching both games of a doubleheader.

We all keep trying to poke and prod to figure out what on earth is inside him. He won't talk about it in any sort of detail, and his teammates just smile and offer no clues as to how he's doing it. (Teammate Andrew Shaw shot down my theory that Keith spends 24 hours a day in the weight room, pointing out he'd have to take breaks to practice and play games.)

Will Keith, a two-time winner of the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman, ever wear down? Everyone wants to know, because the simple truth is this: If he does, the Blackhawks will not win the Stanley Cup. The treadmill really does have to break down before he does.

There's no overstating Keith's importance to this team, which is tied 2-2 with the Lightning heading into Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night despite a defense that is thinned out and worn down. He's the reason the Blackhawks can survive with, really, only four significant defensemen, when most teams play six or seven. 

He counts as two.

Two All-Stars.

Apr 5, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (2) and goalie Corey Crawford (50) celebrate a goal scored by Chicago Blackhawks right wing Kris Versteeg against the St. Louis Blues during the first period of an NHL game at Unite
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Have players logged the kind of time he's playing in the past? Sure, but not the way he's doing it.

"In the old days, defensemen would play 35 minutes all the time, but they would take half the shift off," longtime ESPN commentator Barry Melrose, a former player and coach, told Bleacher Report. "Keith is jumping into the plays, catching people from behind. He never stops. Yeah, he's a freak."

So, how? A lot of athletes work out all the time. It can't just be that this one guy has perfected the art of getting in shape better than every other athlete, can it?

"No, you're right," Melrose said. "That is part of it, but there's something special.

"You won't find out until he dies and they dissect him and find his brain is bigger than everyone else's, or something like that. You can't do what he's doing just because you do a lot of running."

Keith, who's 31, played 46:19 in a triple-overtime game against Nashville earlier in the playoffs, 49:51 in a triple-overtime game against Anaheim, and 40:39 in a double-overtime game against Anaheim. He's averaging 31:14 in 21 games, which would be the most for anyone who played beyond a single series since Chris Pronger averaged 33:50 in 15 games in 2001, which can safely be considered the "old days," as Melrose put it. 

Duncan Keith's Time on Ice During 2015 Postseason
SeriesAverage time on ice
Round 1 vs. Nashville (6 games)32:03
Round 2 vs. Minnesota (4 games)28:29
Round 3 vs. Anaheim (7 games)32:58
Round 4 vs. Tampa Bay (4 games, in progress)29:42
2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs31:14
NHL.com

If you don't know hockey, know that that is a ton of minutes. Anaheim's goal in the conference final was to use its size and physicality to pound on Keith and the rest of the defensemen to slow them down. The Ducks felt Keith had surely played too many minutes.

And they were right. He had. But now he's still playing, and they're not.

So, again, back to the question: How is he doing this? Does he not even get tired, or is he tired and just fighting through it? 

"I think it's just playoff hockey," said Keith, an integral part of Chicago's Cup-winning squads in 2010 and 2013. "Everybody's out there. We're all in the same boat. Everybody's playing hard. It's the middle of June now. We're in the Stanley Cup Final now. That's all that needs to be said."

ANAHEIM, CA - MAY 30:  Corey Perry #10 of the Anaheim Ducks checks Duncan Keith #2 of the Chicago Blackhawks in the first period in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs  at the Honda Center on May 30, 2015 i
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Maybe so, but it didn't answer the question at all.

Mike Vorkapich might be the only person with some insight who's willing to talk about it. Vorkapich, a former Michigan State football player, has been a strength and conditioning coach for the Spartans hockey team since 1998. He was Keith's conditioning coach in college.

Vorkapich remembers one weekend when the Spartans had games on back-to-back nights. After the first game on Friday night, everyone went home, and Vorkapich was about to leave, too, but he heard music coming from near the locker room.

"I went down to check it out, and there was Keith on the [stationary bike]," Vorkapich said. "I asked him what he was doing and he said 'This is how they do it in the NHL.' "

Keith was a freshman and Vorkapich told him that, yes, NHL players might ride the stationary bike after games, but not when they have another game the next day. Keith needed rest and recovery. They argued about it for a while, as Keith continued to pedal. 

"He just kind of looked at me," Vorkapich said. "Mind made up. I just shook my head—'All right'—and left."

Keith kept pedaling.

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08: Duncan Keith #2 of the Chicago Blackhawks tries to clear the puck as Tyler Johnson #9 of the Tampa Bay Lightning defends during Game Three of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on June 8, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Tommy Christian, a former Northwestern football player who owns TC Boost Sports Performance in suburban Chicago, has been paying attention to Keith. TC Boost is a training facility for top athletes and works with several Chicago Bears and Cubs, along with college, high school and Olympic athletes.

"What's so impressive about Keith is he's playing half the game," Christian said. "He has a work-rest ratio of one-to-one and it's very hard to maintain a high level of intensity. It's not like he's going for a jog. It's explosive moments, changing directions, contact, short shifts."

Christian said it would be more strenuous than outdoor soccer, where players can walk and rest at times during play.

"He just has very little break there," Christian said. "What he's doing would be like sprinting up three flights of stairs, doing 20 pushups, maybe five intensive med-ball throws, pushing a sled, jogging and then starting up again.

"A 300-yard shuttle is a common conditioning test people do. You basically sprint 50 yards and back and do that three times, or 25 yards and back six times. It's much harder to do it in shorter sprints. What he's doing is like nonstop shuttles of 10 yards and having to always compete and explode and change direction with the physical side of football or wrestling, and doing it all with sweaty equipment on and pads weighing him down. He's probably carrying an extra 10 pounds."

TAMPA, FL - JUNE 03:  Duncan Keith #2 of the Chicago Blackhawks skates with the puck against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period of Game One of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on June 3, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. The Chicago Black
Bill Smith/Getty Images

Another test used in hockey is called VO2, which measures a player's fitness and willingness to work until hitting the wall. It is done in levels, and at Michigan State, the first level is to run on a treadmill with no incline at 6 mph. That is roughly a jog. But then an incline is introduced in the second level, and from there, each level is faster and steeper.

At Michigan State, they stop for 90 seconds after each level to test heart rates and other measurements. Vorkapich said in his time as an MSU conditioning guy, just three hockey players have gotten through Level 6. And just one was able to run for a minute at Level 7, which is 11 mph uphill.

Guess who that was. Keith, who did it twice.

But this brings up something. Vorkapich has actually seen Keith give in, break down. He didn't remember what it looked like. But this proves it is possible! Tampa has hope.

One thing: Vorkapich estimates that Level 4 is roughly game conditions. Level 7, he said, "I don't know how many overtimes that would be equal to."

Teammate Andrew Desjardins said Keith's incredible ability to keep playing is only partly about fitness. It's also, he said, about simple hockey sense. Keith knows where to go and how to avoid getting hit unnecessarily. And in the end, that knowledge means he burns less energy.

But there is something bigger going on here, too. The Blackhawks have a roster filled with flashy superstars Chicago loves. But Keith is tapping into the soul of a tough town.

Consider that the Blackhawks share the United Center in Chicago with the Bulls, who fired coach Tom Thibodeau in part because upper management wanted him to rest his top players, including Derrick Rose, more often, as Scott Cacciola of the New York Times reported. The idea was to prevent breakdown. And Chicagoans turned on Rose this season, thinking he wasn't willing to tough it out enough.

This is an era of specialization and also maximizing performance through rest and recovery to prevent injuries. And surely that's the right and smart thing to do.

But somehow it's refreshing, anyway, to see the Hawks put Keith on the ice, basically, forever, and not to have Keith's agent calling to complain about it.

Whatever it is, Keith is in great position for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which would be just the 10th time in 50 years a defenseman was named the postseason MVP. And the Stanley Cup might be decided by whether Keith can be broken down.

Don't count on that. Put your money on the treadmill breaking down first.

A Chicago-based writer who also contributes to the New York Times, Greg Couch covers the sporting landscape for Bleacher Report.

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