Editor's note: With overwhelming consistency, research has shown vaccinations against COVID-19 are safe and effective. Residents of Canada who are looking to learn more about vaccines, or the country's pandemic response, can find up-to-date information on Canada's public health website.
EDMONTON -- Duncan Keith is a hockey player.
The Edmonton Oilers didn’t bring him here to be a doctor, a vaccine advocate, or to play the victim because he got vaccinated when he really didn’t want to. He’s here to play 20 minutes per night on their second defensive pairing, and against his true wishes, he got vaccinated so that he could fulfill that obligation.
And earn his $5.5 million salary, of course.
Will Keith’s vaccine hesitancy define his time as an Oiler? Or will it be a distant memory from some Stanley Cup celebration down the road?
I don’t have a clue. All we do know is he rolled up his sleeve, begrudgingly, and now we get to find out.
“I came here and wanted to be a part of this team,” Keith said on Friday. “I think there’s something special here.”
Let’s be clear about this: Keith did not want to get this vaccine. That’s who he is, what he believes.
At 38 years old, Keith is a reputed health freak. His body is a temple, so careful is Keith about what he eats and what medicine or vitamins he ingests. More than most other players, folks who know him say.
As such, in 16 NHL seasons spent mostly as a top pairing, 20-plus minute defenceman in Chicago, Keith has only missed more than five games in a season three times. He has been incredibly durable and healthy in his career.
“I look at it like, I’ve put so much time in over the years in trying to feel good on and off the ice. Prepare and be professional,” he said. “A lot of that is building up your immune system. So for me the frustrating part is that I have done so much to try and keep my immune system strong, healthy and firing on all cylinders.
“To have to take the vaccine to play hockey was frustrating.”
After skating with the team on Friday for the first time due to a quarantine imposed by his late decision to get vaccinated, Keith wasn’t shy to share his views on the need to get vaccinated.
He brought up the usual arguments about perhaps still getting sick even if you are vaccinated, and still being able to pass it along to other people even when vaccinated. He ignored the giant hole regarding over-stressed ICU wards, overworked nurses and doctors, and the undeniable facts around the effectiveness of the vaccine.
“You have to make a medical decision just to play hockey,” Keith lamented. “I feel like that decision, it should be a choice.”
He stood by his guns, we’ll stand by ours, and now that he is a fully vaccinated member of the Oilers may his play dictate the ongoing conversation around Duncan Keith, the latest Oilers import who is supposed to have the secret sauce that has been lacking here in Northern Alberta.
Maybe this entry point to a red-hot Canadian market will provide the chip on his shoulder that those who know Keith say he has always had, in one form or another. Whether that came from being spurned from his first American university choice, to being a second-round draft pick, Keith is always happiest when he has someone to prove wrong.
“You always have to prove something. That’s how you stay in the league,” he reasoned. “From early on in my career, I wasn’t a first-round pick or a highly-touted prospect. I just continue to do what I’ve tried to do my whole career. Help the team win any way I can.
“There are always critics, and that’s fun. People have opinions on players, on teams. It just comes down to how you perform, and ultimately, how the team performs.”
Far more controversial than his vaccine status has been the price paid by Oilers general manager Ken Holland, who failed to get the Blackhawks to retain any of Keith’s salary. With Oscar Klefbom’s career quite possibly over due to a shoulder injury, Holland jumped at the chance to get a left defenceman with Keith’s pedigree -- with only two years left on his contract.
If Keith steps in and gives Holland a stable second pairing, consistently delivers pucks to Leon Draisaitl in stride and helps Darnell Nurse become the Alpha dog of this defensive corps that he is clearly scheduled to be, then it’s all money well spent.
And if his on-ice play and off-ice experience help the Oilers crack the glass ceiling that has been the post-season, well, missing a week of training camp likely won’t matter much.
Or the reason why he missed it.
“I don’t want to make it about this vaccine,” Keith said. “I’m here and I’m ready to play.”