Keetley poised for big things in Quad City

by Lindsay Kramer ||

Slushies were always Matt Keetley’s weak spot as a youngster. He lived around the corner from a convenience store and, don’t you know, they made the best around.

“I had three or four slushies a day. Root beer was my favorite,” said Keetley, now a rookie goalie for the Quad City Flames. “No one told me they were full of sugar until I was older.”

By then, it was too late. He was 14 or 15, and all of 240 pounds. He didn’t look anything like a hockey player, but he was developing some things a little more important.

Like compassion and tolerance for people with weight problems.

“I did get picked on a lot. I was ‘Fat Matt.’ I kept a lot of stuff in. I just kind of swallowed it,” he said. “It hurts your feelings. I look at people and I don’t judge anything.”

Keetley, 21, isn’t pushing any diet books or telling anybody else how to take care of their bodies. All he knows is that in some ways, hockey has been a lifesaver for him. He’s now a 6-foot-2, 190-pound prospect coming off a career as one of the best clutch goalies in juniors. Now, he’s aiming to do the same thing in the American Hockey League.

Matt Keetley is an amazing story,” said Willie Desjardins, his junior coach at Medicine Hat (WHL). “Everything he got, he fought for. He didn’t have anything given to him.”

Keetley joined Medicine Hat in 2003-04 still well overweight, in the 215-plus range. To his credit, he bought into the conditioning needed to stay at that level, did extra skating and ran his rink’s stairs. Eventually, he dropped into the 180s. As it turned out, losing weight was the easiest problem he faced in becoming a decent hockey player.

To characterize Keetley as a lightly regarded player doesn’t begin to describe how far off the radar he was. He played in a bantam house league at age 15 — as a forward. By his own description, he was just trying to plow guys over.

“I really didn’t know what I was going to do in hockey at that point,” he said.

There was no reason to believe it would be anything worth remembering. He went back to playing goalie, his favored position, and Desjardins brought him in for two games as fodder in 2003-04 just because he was a hometown kid.

“I was definitely a desperate measure call-up. They had no intention of keeping me the next year,” Keetley said. “They didn’t buy me equipment, they didn’t buy me skates.”

He got nothing but a chance. Which, as it turned out, was all he needed.

Desjardins brought him back the next season for what he expected would be a short, unsuccessful competition for the backup job. Instead, Keetley won the spot, going 21-5-3 with a 1.66 goals-against and a .933 save percentage.

“I just came in and proved I wanted to be here because no one believed in me,” said Keetley, who was grabbed by Calgary in the fifth round of the 2005 Entry Draft. “I really think if you believe in something, you really work hard, it could happen.”

When did Desjardins realize he might be on to something here?

“Long after I should have, probably. He probably deserved more credit that he got early,” he said. “He said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ He got better every year.”

Pretty much so to the point where he might have been considered the best. In 2005-06, he led the Western Hockey League in wins with 42 and ranked fourth in goals-against average (2.09).

Last season, he carried the team to the Memorial Cup final before losing to Vancouver. He paced the league in wins (42), tied for fourth with six shutouts and ranked sixth in goals-against (2.19). He earned the WHL playoff Most Valuable Player award after backstopping the Tigers to the league championship.

“I’m a person that shows intensity,” Keetley said. “Big games are the most intense games you are going to get. You don’t (lose and) laugh it off. You go to the rink the next day to better what you did.”

Keetley has become a potential stopper for a couple of reasons. For one thing, he’s one of those rare goalies who catches with his right hand, giving shooters that split-second of hesitation as they register that awkward sight.

“We think he’s a battler. He’s a little unorthodox,” said Quad City coach Ryan McGill. “In practice, he doesn’t look all that consistent, but at the end of the day, in games, he gets the job done.”

Secondly, Keetley has a patience and a focus that borders on the mechanical. Literally. In his spare time, he unwinds by doing whatever repair work he pleases on cars, from brake jobs to taking apart and putting engines back together. Like goaltending, that’s pretty much a self-taught skill.

“It’s almost like both of them, everything you have to wait for,” he said, comparing the two crafts. “For a goalie, you’re waiting for the play. With motors, it’s piece by piece. You have to always come back to the same focus.”

That singular vision is being tested now like never before. Keetley is one of a pair of rookie goaltenders on the Flames, along with Kevin Lalande. Two newcomers at that position at the same time rarely works out well.

McGill, for now, says playing time will go to whoever keeps earning it. The race is early, but Keetley has shown for several years that it’s tough to go against him when it comes down to a question of willpower.

“I’m excited about it. I’ve been pushed before,” Keetley said. “It’s going to be back and forth. It’s one of those things where you have to be strong, you can’t take a night off, you can’t take a weekend off, because you’re trying to be better than the other guy.”