Duncan Keith took the ice with his teammates for practice Sunday, a key step in the star defenseman's return after undergoing knee surgery. As part of the day, Keith spoke to reporters about his injury and recovery. In the process, the Chicago Blackhawks' iron man reminded us that the toughness so intrinsic to hockey culture can be both a blessing and a curse.
Keith revealed Sunday that his meniscus tear, which required surgery in mid-October, originated during the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, either in Game 3 or 4 when a Lightning player fell on the 32-year-old. The injury has kept Keith out for three weeks and will for at least another couple games as he's not eligible to come off LTIR until Saturday. In that time, the Blackhawks have unsurprisingly missed their defensive anchor and a key part of their layered offensive system.
Now we know that Keith actually started dealing with the pain back in early June, but opted not to tell anyone while the team was battling for the Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks ultimately prevailed, and Keith, thinking the pain was simply resulting from normal wear and tear after playing ridiculous minutes throughout the playoffs, figured it would go away with rest.
It turns out that wasn't the case, something Keith discovered after a start to the season that saw the defenseman lacking his usual first step. Only then did Keith reveal to the team that something was wrong. "It’s just one of those things where you kind of deal with a lot of different little injuries and pains and you don’t think too much of it, really," Keith said on Sunday. "When all of a sudden you get back on the ice [and] it’s not better, you’re kind of wondering what the heck happened."
As Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times noted, this is probably a situation that could've been better addressed with more communication:
Maybe if Keith had mentioned something to his coaches, or the athletic trainers, or the team doctor, the team would have learned about the meniscal tear in his right knee earlier, and could have repaired it over the summer instead of during the season. Instead, Keith kept quiet. And after dealing with the pain during his summer workouts, and throughout camp, and into the first couple of weeks of the season, Keith finally relented. He had surgery on Oct. 20, when it became clear that the nagging pain in his calf, and the limited mobility it caused, wasn’t going away.
Of course, nobody is really blaming Keith for the situation. He surely would've told someone during the offseason if he had known the severity of the injury. And as we saw during the playoffs yet again, Keith is a tough dude. He's not going to go out of his way to spend time in the hospital instead of the ice. That willingness to take the punishment without faltering is a big part of what makes the defenseman so special.
Except, in this case, Keith's toughness probably resulted in him missing more time than he needed to. Based on the timetable with the surgery, Keith easily could've undergone the procedure during the offseason and been ready to return for opening night. Everyone involved, in retrospect, probably wishes this had gotten done earlier.
"We did not know about it," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. When asked if he wished Keith had said something earlier, Quenneville said, "Well, something like that, maybe you get to the summer and [expect it will] get better over time. That’s probably what happened."
This isn't really a situation where anyone is to blame. We're talking about a league where the first day after a playoff exit is jokingly referred to as The Revelation because of the tradition of revealing previously hidden or otherwise unknown injuries. Part of the culture is not to make a big deal of physical woes unless they'll keep you out of the lineup. Keith's injury, and his lack of acknowledgement of the injury, are both well in line with being a professional hockey player. It's just another example of how players' insistence on being crazy, indestructible badasses can occasionally backfire.
At least in this instance the damage was only a few weeks instead of something much more serious. Keith should be back soon and healthier than he was to begin the season. There's no doubt that nagging knee injury took a bite out of his game. The Blackhawks will surely welcome back a Keith that's much closer to 100 percent. You just wonder if maybe Keith and the Hawks learned a lesson about communicating injuries more proactively. Even if we shouldn't hold our breath, it probably wouldn't hurt.