By Chadd Cripe
The Idaho Statesman
BOISE, Idaho – Idaho Steelheads rookie forward Greg Keith has better championship stories to tell than many of his new teammates.
Keith helped the University of Denver win the NCAA Division I men’s hockey championship in April.
The team met President Bush at the White House, rode fire trucks in a parade, took batting practice at Coors Field, dropped the puck at a Colorado Avalanche game and closed down a tattoo parlor so more than half the players could get matching tats.
“We were the biggest celebrities in Denver,” Keith said.
The Steelheads, of course, experienced a scaled-down version of the same excitement last spring when they won the ECHL’s Kelly Cup.
Coach John Olver recruited Keith in part because he already knew what it took, and what it felt like, to win a championship.
“He’s an overachiever who’s been successful wherever he’s been,” Olver said. “We’ve always had success recruiting players that have a track record of winning.”
The Steelheads’ success also was a key reason Keith decided to begin his pro career in Boise. He won a championship in the junior British Columbia Hockey League before going to Denver.
“I wanted to be a part of this and try to bring another championship here,” Keith said, “and keep my roll going.”
Keith, 24, has recorded just one point in six games this season. But most of his contributions don’t make the stat sheet.
Keith brings energy and defense above all else. He was on the ice for the majority of a 73-second 6-on-3 as Denver preserved its 1-0 win over Maine in the championship game.
It was Keith’s energy that caught the eye of Denver assistant coach Seth Appert, who recruited him out of the BCHL.
“We were missing the energy with which he played, the enthusiasm, how much passion he brought to the game,” Appert said.
Keith learned the value of defense as a newcomer on his junior and college teams. He will play a checking role with the Steelheads, too.
“It helped me get a scholarship,” Keith said, “and it helped my team win. And now it’s helped me be able to take the step to the next level.”
At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, Keith is one of the smallest Steelheads. Yet so far this season he has been one of the team’s top body checkers.
Olver says he hopes that facet of Keith’s game rubs off on his larger teammates.
“He’s a little sparkplug that runs around and hits everything in sight,” teammate Scott Burt said. “And he ain’t afraid to mix things up.”
Keith, born in Alberta and raised in the Vancouver, B.C., area, made a name for himself with 43 goals and 40 assists with the Chilliwack Chiefs in the BCHL in 1999-2000.
He never scored more than 10 goals in a season at Denver, but was a key penalty killer even as a freshman.
“He scored a lot of big goals in big games, a lot of the dirty goals,” Appert said. “And he was a tremendous penalty-killer for us for four years.”
Keith was part of a seven-man senior class that brought glory back to the Denver program. The Pioneers won five national titles in the 1950s and 1960s, but hadn’t won since 1969.
The class became close to many of the former players during their run, including former All-American, NHL defenseman and NHL coach Keith Magnuson.
Magnuson taught the players to enjoy the journey during their college careers.
“He lived in Chicago, but he came to visit us all the time,” said Keith, who earned a marketing degree at Denver. “Any time we would be in a big situation, he was always there.”
But Magnuson missed the biggest moment of all. He died in a car accident last December.
Keith said he was thinking about Magnuson in the dressing room before the championship game against Maine. The players had “K2M” — the “2” is for Magnuson’s No. 2 — inscribed on their championship rings.It was an emotional touch to an already emotional season, in which the Pioneers struggled at times and had to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the third period of the national semifinal against Minnesota-Duluth.
“It was kind of like our senior class’ personality and Greg’s personality — it was emotional, it had its bumps along the way, it wasn’t the perfect season,” Appert said. “It was a lot of belief in each other, a lot of character in the senior class to be able to be the best team in the last couple months of the season.”
Keith won the team’s community service award — a fact that should endear him to the community-friendly Steelheads organization.
“The fans like him because of the way he plays,” Appert said. “He has a great deal of charisma and personality off the ice.”