Danny DeKeyser has almost certainly played his last game for the Detroit Red Wings, but he has earned appreciation and respect.
DeKeyser started the NHL season as a 31-year-old stalwart and alternate captain of the Detroit Red Wings. Many NHL defensemen are still in their prime at 31 but compared to the Red Wings’ other alternate captain, Marc Staal, who is 4 years older and is still a contributor to the defensive corps; DeKeyser is an old 31. Two years removed from major back surgery, we were hopeful that had regained his strength, if not his youthful speed. It did not happen.
He used his hockey intelligence and experience to be in the right position, play a simple game, and fit in with the low-event game of the Blashill system. Yet, no amount of hockey wisdom could hide his lack of defensive mobility in the high-speed modern game.
Fan frustration and criticism intensified over the season as the goals against began to mount. Fans observed how well the Wings played when he was a healthy scratch and considered him to be a consistent liability when he was on the ice. He had given everything he had until there was nothing left to give.
Danny DeKeyser joined the team during the 2012-2013 season as a free agent from Western Michigan University. He made his debut with the Red Wings on April 5, 2013. There was more than a little excitement surrounding his arrival. The scouting report called him “the total package” and “a classic mobile defenseman.” Kevin Allen from the Octopus Thrower called him “The next defensive star for the Detroit Red Wings.”
From his first game, he solidified the defense and provided a shot of optimism for a playoff-bound team. A broken thumb derailed his and the team’s playoff run that season. The following season was disrupted due to a separated left shoulder. He went on to have two excellent seasons in 2014-2015 and 2015-2016. Although never a big scorer, he was solid, confident, and made sound decisions with the puck and in coverage. Fewer players were as selfless or as strong when it came to taking a hit to make a play.
Although he played every game in the 2016-2017 season, there was an element about DeKeyser that did not look right. The team around him was in decline, but there was something more. The smooth-skating, the confidence to jump into the offensive zone, and the effortless turn into pursuit were less consistent and less dynamic than in the previous two seasons. The one-time excellent skater had lost a step. Although everyone in the NHL plays through pain, through his toughness Danny DeKeyser’s pain was taking a toll.
Injuries are cruel in sports. Although he should be at the peak of a career filled with promise, DeKeyser appeared to be in decline. Damaged and deteriorating spinal discs began to press on nerves, which were not only painful but drained dynamic strength and responsiveness from his lower body. The powerful and smooth skating stride that marked his game was also deteriorating. There are few worse chronic injuries for hockey players.
After holding off as long as possible, he had major surgery in December of 2019. Part of the disc that was pressing on his spinal nerves was trimmed. This surgery was similar to the surgery that Henrik Zetterberg had for a spinal condition that ended the captain’s career. And like Zetterberg, DeKeyser’s injury was apparent for years before resorting to surgery.
“They said sometimes when you injure a disc you feel it right away or sometimes it just kind of builds up over time,” DeKeyser said. “Maybe there was an injury a year or two ago and it just kind of slowly built up.”
The 2021-2022 season was disappointing for DeKeyser. Yet, the Red Wings value experience, leadership, and the culture of playing the game the right way. He modeled toughness and sacrifice for the team. He coped with being placed on waivers and being unclaimed with professionalism. He continued to sacrifice to be on the ice for his team.
The young players witnessed his intense rehabilitation and training, painful and exhaustive physical and mental preparation for every game, and placing his body on the line for his teammates. He employed superhuman will and pain management simply to get on the ice for one more game over and over again. Creating a winning warrior culture is among the most difficult elements to implement in a losing, but young and improving team.
DeKeyser’s legacy is that of a warrior who gave everything he had for the team. He did it the right way.
As quoted by Ted Kulfan in the Detroit News, “It’s been a dream come true to play here,” DeKeyser said. “(As a youngster) idolizing this team and playing here, coming to the rink every day, I’ve been pretty lucky to be able to play not just in the NHL but for my hometown team, as well. It’s been special for me.”
It’s been special for Red Wings fans, too.