On Oct. 22, Steve Keogh woke up early and looked out the window of his Ottawa hotel room. There was Parliament Hill. There was The National War Memorial.
“I was thinking, ‘I worked there, and I worked there,’” he said Sunday. “I was excited to be back home, to see my family.”
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Keogh is in his first season as director of media relations for the Toronto Maple Leafs. But, he will be the first to tell you he is “Ottawa through-and-through.” One of 11 children, he worked for the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees, the now-defunct triple-A baseball Ottawa Lynx and the Ottawa Senators before moving to the Canadian Olympic Committee, UFC and now, the Leafs.
In 1990, at age 20, he joined the Governor General’s Foot Guards, staying for two-and-half years. An infantry unit established in 1872, the Foot Guards also have a ceremonial role on Parliament Hill and in Rideau Hall.
“There was family motivation,” Keogh said. “My cousin Paul and brother Andrew were members. My mother lost a brother in World War II, so it was in part for them. I was drawn to it.”
There was infantry training, drills and field exercises. There were responsibilities at major events.
“I stood guard at Rideau Hall when (Queen Elizabeth II) was there, at Parliament Hill when the Queen was there, the Prime Minister and many other dignitaries. I learned a lot about respect, discipline, chain of command. You learn how to carry yourself with dignity, have pride in yourself. It doesn’t leave you. I enjoyed it.
“It instilled that drive in me, made me into the person I am today.”
As we now know, shortly after Keogh looked down from his window, everything went wrong. A gunman named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau drove to The National War Memorial, where he shot and killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo.
Cirillo was a part-time reservist with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. There was a connection for Keogh.
“I stood guard at the Cenotaph myself. I stood right there.”
“It was surreal,” he added. “You don’t realize the significance. I thought, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’”
He texted friends, family and his girlfriend to let them know he was OK. He watched, waited and tried to make sense of what was happening, trying to understand the true extent of the danger — especially since the Maple Leafs were so close to it.
“Your window is like a TV screen. You sit right in front of it and don’t know where to look. There were so many police.”
The game was eventually cancelled, rescheduled for Sunday Nov. 9. On that morning, hours after the Maple Leafs’ arrival from Toronto, both teams met at the memorial for a private service. There was a piper, a bugler and the Canadian Forces Band. Team captains Erik Karlsson and Dion Phaneuf each laid a wreath on behalf of their teams.
It took some convincing to get Keogh to talk about this, especially since media relations directors aren’t supposed to be in the news. But it's is an emotional time, especially with Remembrance Day approaching.
“What (Cpl. Cirillo) was doing, all soldiers took great pride in,” Keogh said. “He stood in guard for us. Now we are standing guard for him.
“It really shook me. It’s reminded me of how fragile life is. How lucky we are, and how we must never forget those who go before us.”