Whether he’s rockin’ with his friends to Nirvana CD’s or kickin’ back in front of Happy Gilmore, Justin Keller never lets his mind stray too far from the important tasks at hand. These days, his professional hockey career is the top priority.
Born on March 4, 1986, Keller grew up in Summerland, British Columbia. In recent years, the soft-spoken Keller has managed to swing a big stick through Western Hockey League rinks, often directing pucks past opposition goaltenders. In fact, Keller led the WHL with 51 goals last season.
During his three years with the Kelowna Rockets, Keller scored 107 goals and 80 assists in 216 regular season games. Considering that the WHL schedule is a 72-game proposition, in three seasons, the 5’11, 190-pound forward in fact never missed a game.
During his first two seasons, Keller played in a pair of Memorial Cup championships, scoring the cup-clinching goal in a 2-1 home-ice win over the Gatineau Olympiques at the 2004 tournament in Kelowna. All tolled, including playoffs, Keller played in all but one game for the Rockets during his junior career.
Heading into the 2006-07 season, it is expected Keller will make the jump to professional hockey. According to Lightning General Manager Jay Feaster, the organization is impressed with Keller’s pure scoring touch, a skill he was able to refine while in Kelowna. While a job with Tampa Bay would be ideal, the Lightning’s eighth round pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft is not averse to some seasoning with the club’s AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons.
Hockey’s Future met with Keller in Summerland, shortly after his return from the Lightning rookie camp in Tampa Bay.
HF: What does it mean to you, having been able to play your entire junior career near your hometown?
JK: Geez, we could probably sit here for hours and talk about that (laughing). I mean, my parents were able to come to every game. So did my brother. Kelowna is only half an hour from my hometown in Summerland.
HF: Any thoughts on the organization? You enjoyed some team and personal success in Kelowna?
JK: To be on a team that is such a great organization, I mean Bruce (Hamilton) runs such a great organization. When we won the Memorial Cup, I just remember Jeff Truitt and Marc Habscheid were such great coaches. There’s gonna be friends there I’ll have for the rest of my life. It was awesome to play there and something I know I’m going to miss.
HF: How did the coaching staff influence your development as a player?
JK: It wasn’t really so much the on-ice stuff, I mean Habber knows the game so well that everything he said, you’d listen to. What really stands out I think is how they intertwined a lot of life lessons with the things they tried to teach us. I’ve grown so much mentally I just can’t say enough about Habber and Truey.
HF: Anything specific you remember them doing to bring the teams together?
JK: It was neat how they would bring the young guys in and help them to work well with the older guys. They’ve been there, you know, they’ve been through a lot of the things we were going through and they knew how important it was for us to mesh.
HF: In an era where the professional game really seemed to emphasize the physical strength and size of players, you were able to demonstrate tremendous durability for a smaller guy. You missed only one game in your three years in the WHL. Any secrets?
JK: The head trainer in Kelowna was Scott Hoyer (now with the Edmonton Oilers) and he did a great job with us in terms of our workouts, especially during my three years. He did a great job with the guys. It kind of related a bit to your ice time, but he would tailor a workout program specifically for each player with certain things in mind.
HF: The physical part aside, how did you manage to prepare yourself game in and game out?
JK: Well, the WHL is a tough grind because there’s a lot of travel, a lot of bus time, but I think you just have to really prepare yourself mentally to accept how important it is to look after your body and do what’s right. I mean, sometimes you might just want to go to a movie some night, but you know it’s not the right thing to do because you need to get your rest to stay in the best possible shape that you can.
HF: What was it like working with assistant coach Kim Gellert last season? It looked like you had a lot of fun at practice.
JK: I think Kim is one of a kind. Some of the stuff we did, I figure there were probably people in the stands who must have been laughing out loud at some of things we did.
HF: Any drills or exercises that stand out?
JK: People might think the drills looked dumb or weird, but there might be that one time in a game where you get the puck in the air and you have to bat it in the net. We’d do drills where Kim would just throw pucks at me and I had to try to hit them in the net. Even just trying trick shots, I mean pools shots on the ice, some things that really helped me to develop my hand-eye coordination. We worked on a lot of kicking the puck out from in my feet, some things that a defender might not see or expect and maybe there’s that opportunity to beat him with some of these moves. Kim was great in that way because he saw things during games and then really helped me to open my mind to things that I didn’t even know were possible. He’s an unbelievable guy and a great teacher.
HF: What are some of the things you’ve enjoyed at the NHL training camps you’ve attended?
JK: At my first camp, that would have been in September of 2005, the big thing I remember was having trouble getting over the nerves. I grew up watching guys like Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards. Next thing I know, I’m playing with them. And then I was on a line with Dave Andreychuk, so that was, well, I was on a line with a legend, so I was nervous to say the least. St. Louis helped me out, he took me aside and talked about what it was like for him at his first camp. I’m just going back this year with that much more experience and hopefully in some ways it will be a little easier.
HF: You attended the rookie camp in July. Any thoughts on that experience? Any other players from the WHL there?
JK: There were a lot of guys there and it went pretty well. It was more of an orientation thing, so it wasn’t too strenuous. We skated and played a few games, but it was just an opportunity to get to know everyone. A lot of WHL guys…Chris Ray (Kelowna) and Clayton Barthel (Seattle/Kelowna) did really well.
HF: Your next stop is the rookie tournament in Traverse City?
JK: Yeah, this will be my third year there. It will be fun to go there and try to showcase my talent in a tournament format where you only have a few games to prove what you’ve got. I’m looking forward to it.
HF: Anything specific the Lightning is asking you to work on?
JK: I think my skating was a major point at their end, so this past summer I took some skating lessons and I think that has come a long way. What I really want to develop is my quickness, in every area of the game. At the NHL level, you can never be too quick. I think the game is only going to get quicker for me going forward. So, I want to improve my skating and really build my mental game as well.
HF: How do you see the new NHL rules affecting your play, your chances to play at the pro level?
JK: The new NHL is great for smaller guys like myself and I think the rules will open up the game for everyone. Now you don’t have the bigger guys clutching and grabbing and holding you up. If you do that now, you get caught and it’s great for guys like myself.
HF: What keeps you busy off the ice, during the off-season?
JK: I play a lot of music, the drums and guitar. I love music, all kinds. Rock, punk rock. Mike Card (BUF) and I had a band and I really enjoyed that. We were called Kounterfit, that was a couple years ago. I like to play some golf. Wakeboarding and wakeskating are fun too.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.