By Dave Eminian
Of The Journal Star
PEORIA, ILL. – You can’t miss Cam Keith on the ice, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound wrecking ball on skates, who delivers physical play and enthusiasm from his checking line role for the Peoria Rivermen.
He can, however, be overlooked off it.
“Last fall, I don’t think the Peoria Rivermen ever heard of me before,” said Keith, who pairs a great sense of humor with a solid perspective on his pro career. “I never thought I’d be here this year. I’ve been fortunate to get a really good opportunity from (Rivermen coach) Steve Pleau, a regular shift and killing penalties.”
Keith, 25, played seven AHL games for Hartford and St. John’s the last two seasons. Unable to get a one-way AHL deal from Toronto over the summer, the winger called ECHL Alaska coach Davis Payne and asked for a job. “My fiancée was in Alaska, and if I was going to play in the ECHL, that’s where I wanted it to be,” Keith said.
He signed a two-way deal with Peoria and was assigned to Alaska, which put Keith in the St. Louis Blues organization. When the wheels came off the Blues season, Keith was brought up to Peoria to fill in a roster ravaged by NHL call-ups and injuries.
Never drafted, he’s been here 14 games now, the kind of work-ethic player teams lean on at playoff time.
“I try to bring a physical presence, make things better for the team,” Keith said. “I didn’t make the playoff rosters in Hartford and St. John’s. My goal is to help this team get to the playoffs. And to stay with them.”
Keith started out at age 4 as a figure skater. Later there was golf, basketball and hockey.
When he was 14, he quit hockey for a year to ski (“I was pretty much a ski bum”), no surprise for a kid from Nelson, British Columbia, a ski resort town of 10,000 flanked by snow-packed mountains a half hour from the U.S. border.
He thought college basketball was his future. Then his father showed him basketball and hockey rosters. There weren’t any 6-3 centers playing basketball.
So it was hockey, at Alaska-Fairbanks because of its small-town setting – “Peoria is the biggest place I’ve ever lived in,” Keith said.
He played four years at Fairbanks, earned team MVP honors and a degree in business management while Fairbanks dominated rival Alaska-Anchorage in the yearly Governor’s Cup.
“When Fairbanks scores, our fans throw a moose leg on the ice,” said Keith, dead serious. “When Anchorage scores, their fans toss big salmon.”
He remembers the minus-60 degree winter temperatures in Fairbanks and how his nose would swell up in that air and metal would burn exposed skin.
“The summers were better,” Keith said. “It was light out all the time, though. You’d wake up at 2 a.m. and not have a clue what time it was.”
This year, ECHL Alaska fans wear Blues jerseys and the team announces results of the Peoria games and how the called-up Aces players fared.
“They feel a part of a system, they’ve really taken to it,” Keith said. “Just like I feel part of things here in Peoria. There’s a lot of great players here. I’m just trying to prove myself to the organization.”