Gordon Keats was born on March 1, 1895 in Montreal, but grew up in North Bay, Ontario where he learned to skate and play hockey. He quickly developed into one of the most skilled centers in the early 1900s.
Duke started playing with the Toronto Blueshirts at the age of 16. The Blueshirts played in the National Hockey Association, the predecessor of the National Hockey League. The youngster played really well, too, scoring 37 goals and 45 points in 37 games over two years.
While playing with the Blueshirts, also known as the Arenas, Keats enlisted in the Canadian military for duty in World War 1. Duke played with the 228th Battalion of Toronto but the team was quickly summoned overseas for war duties on February 10, 1917.
Duke survived the war and returned to his hockey career two years later when he signed with the Edmonton Eskimos in a western Canadian league. From 1919 until 1926 Duke excelled in the WCHL, a league operated by Frank and Lester Patrick, and considered by many to be as good as the NHL at the time. Duke's teammates on that team included Barney Stanley and Bullet Joe Simpson, both Hall of Famers.
But it was Keats who was the key to the Eskimos success.
"He was the hero of Edmonton and undoubtedly one of the greatest center icemen who ever laced up a skate" said journalist Ken McConnell.
In 1922-23 Keats led the WCHL in scoring with 31 goals and 55 points in 25 games. He led Edmonton to the league championship and a match up against the NHL's Ottawa Senators in a show-down for the Stanley Cup, only to have the Sens prevail.
Duke, a plodding skater, made a big impression on the eastern NHLers and soon the WCHL was being scouted for talent. The NHL lured away a number of WCHL stars and the league was disentegrating because of it. Soon enough Keats too headed east as the Boston Bruins purchased his hockey rights from Edmonton.
Keats stay in Beantown was short as Art Ross sent him to the Detroit Cougars in January 1927. Keats had 4 goals and 7 assists in 17 games with the B's. He was playing well as a playmaker but returned to his usual role of goal scorer in Detroit. He scored 12 goals in the remaining 25 games that season, and picked up just 1 assist.
After 5 games in the 1927-28 season with Detroit, Keats was moved to Chicago where he had a solid season, scoring 14 goals and 22 points in 32 games. However after just 3 games with the Hawks in 1928-29, he was demoted to the minors. Keats would play the next three years with the Tulsa Oilers of the AHA.
Keats wasn't overly happy in Tulsa, however. Once it became obvious his NHL days were done he fought to have his amateur status reinstated so he could return to western Canada to play. That status finally came in 1932 and Keats returned to Edmonton to play and later coach.
Frank Patrick said this about Keats:
"Duke is the possessor of more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played the game. He is the most unselfish superstar in hockey. I have watched him innumerable times. In one game, I especially checked up on his play. He gave his wingmen thirty chances to score by perfectly placed passes. He's the brainiest pivot that ever pulled on a skate, because he can organize plays and make passes every time he starts."
Hmm. Sounds like another kid who went on to star in Edmonton some 60 years later.
Duke Keats was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958.