Opportunity knocked, and Keith answered

by David Rak || AHL On The Beat Archive

In Cam Keith‘s hockey career, Christmas 2005 was a time of stark realization about his future in professional hockey.

"I really, honestly didn’t think I was going to get called up (to the Rivermen), so it was going to be my last year of hockey," Keith remembers thinking in the ensuing months following a groin injury — occurring just a day before Peoria’s first preseason game — that forced him down to the Rivermen’s ECHL affiliate, the Alaska Aces.

"I was just going to play, finish my degree and get into business."

And for a moment, just a few days after his Christmas revelation, it might have seemed to get even worse. Early in the third period of a 4-0 home win over the Victoria Salmon Kings on Dec. 28, after having assisted on the last goal of the game, Alaska head coach Davis Payne told Keith he wouldn’t be playing another shift that night.

"I remember him saying, ‘Cam, you’re not going to play another shift,’" Keith related, worrying that he had done something to warrant a benching. "Then he came back and said, ‘Don’t worry about it because you’re leaving after the game for Peoria.’"

Keith, 25, had two brief stints in the American Hockey League prior to sticking with the Rivermen last season. After finishing his NCAA Division I collegiate career at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in 2003-04, he toiled in four games for the Hartford Wolf Pack, and then as a rookie in 2004-05, he played three games with the St. John’s Maple Leafs.

"I didn’t think it was ever going to happen, but fortunately, I got the opportunity," Keith said of his Peoria call-up. "I got a shot to turn some heads and did that. With how old I was, I knew my window was very small to possibly get a contract for next year."

"Cam is exactly the example of a guy who creates an opportunity for himself and makes the most of it," said Kevin McDonald, Rivermen general manager of hockey operations and director of professional scouting for the St. Louis Blues. "From where he was last year to this year shows how far he’s come and he’s been rewarded for all his hard work."

Keith wasted little time making an impression with the opportunity give to him by the Blues organization, which would eventually sign him to a two-year AHL contract and invite him to his first NHL training camp in September 2006.

"On my very first shift against Hamilton on New Year’s Eve, a guy wasn’t really looking after he chipped the puck in right at the blue line," Keith said. "After he dumped it in, he turned right into me as he tried to circle to the middle of the ice, and I just stepped into him and crushed him into the glass by the Rivermen bench.

"It was the biggest hit of the year on my very first shift with the Rivermen," Keith added.

Timing was one of Keith’s best attributes, as he cemented himself on the team’s roster just a month after his debut.

"It was my fifth game and we played on the road against Omaha," Keith said. "I scored a shorthanded goal to give us the lead and then set up the overtime winning goal. The All-Star game hit then and they didn’t send me back.

"I started to think I had a spot on the team and had made a role for myself," Keith added.

"It’s about raising his will and desire, combined with his sensing of the urgency that is needed," McDonald said. "His awareness raised his level of play which caused him to stay. His job is to continue to work to combine all of those snapshots (of his highlights from the season) and intertwine them on a consistent basis."

Keith, who posted 30 points (13g, 17a) in 39 games for the Aces last season, was sent back to Alaska one more time before joining the team for good on Feb. 21, 2006.

Keith said that Steve Pleau, then the Rivermen’s head coach, and assistant Brent Thompson remained positive with him.

"When I was sent down, they said it was a numbers thing and not how I played," Keith recalled. "They told me how to work on my feet because I’m a fast player but not a quick player.

"They kept me positive with the ups and downs of getting called up," Keith added. "The coaching staff was a big part of me being able to do what I did last year."

Payne also guided Keith into a different playing role to maximize his chances at the AHL level.

"I started on the second line (in Alaska) in more of a goal-scorer type role," Keith said. "Davis pulled me aside and said if I wanted to make it to the next level, I had to be hitting and playing the banging role. So I changed my style, and he molded me into a player that could play into the American Hockey League."

"That’s the trick and the key to our affiliation with Alaska," McDonald said. "It’s very unselfish of Davis to have a talk with a player and to put player’s development ahead of how it would most benefit his team on a daily basis. It’s an absolute key in an AHL/ECHL relationship."

Keith, who posted 13 points (6g, 7a) in 34 regular-season games for Peoria last year, became an edgy player that worked to take energy away from the other team; a player that would throw his weight around and as a bigger guy would finish all of his hits; a player that would work the corners with his size and strength; a player that clears space for more skilled players and one that chips in offensively every once in a while.

"I’m a third/fourth-line player who’s under the radar," Keith said. "Hopefully, you’ll notice me and my actions at the end of the game. I play a simple game and don’t get too involved in any certain aspect."

Keith took a lot of his playing cues from his linemate for half of the games he played with the Rivermen in 2006-07.

"Rocky Thompson was really positive," Keith said. "He was always saying, ‘Let’s go, Keither. Create havoc.’ I followed Rock’s leadership because he was always the first guy on the ice and the last one off it.

"I just watched him and copied, and it helped my development as player and in how to conduct myself off the ice," Keith said.

Keith’s impeccable timing was on display again later in the season, this time for the Aces in their run to the 2006 ECHL championship. It happened in Game 6 of the conference semifinals at home against the Las Vegas Wranglers.

"It was 12:30 in the morning, triple overtime and the rink was sold out," Keith said, setting the scene. "I happened to get the overtime winner (and series-clinching goal). After that, I was a hero in Anchorage right there."

The playoffs taught Keith a lot about being a professional hockey player.

"The intensity level," said Keith, who collected 12 points (6g, 6a) in 17 playoff games. "You can never imagine how much harder it is until you get there. Guys are playing every shift like it’s their last. You’re playing, sweating and bleeding for a month, and there’s so much attention and emotion, it’s amazing."

"It’s hard to describe and understand until you’re in that moment because it’s so much more intense and there’s so much more at stake," Keith added. For example, Keith, who is not a frequent fighter despite his given role, fought three times in the playoffs with the Aces.

"You come upon those moments in which you’d do anything for your teammates," Keith said.

You never know how opportunity’s knock will need to be answered.