Bill Simpson always fantasized about his retirement plans. He loved the outdoors, he loved woodworking and he loved hands-on tasks. He imagined working part-time at Lowe’s or The Home Depot so he could putz around the aisles, hone his craftsman skills and share his knowledge and passion with others.
The same year that Simpson finally left his 30-year job as a systems director for McDonnell-Douglas was the same year that his grandson Clayton was born. For Simpson, that moment of synchronicity created an entirely different and most unexpected purpose.
“There was just an immediate connection there between Bill and Clayton,” said Bryan Keller, Clayton’s father. “By the time Clayton was three or four, I was trying to build my business and career so I was working seven days a week around the clock, and traveling three, sometimes four weeks a month.
“Bill was a big fisherman, an outdoorsman, and Clayton was like his little companion, his little buddy that went with him everywhere. I remember saying to him, ‘Hey, Bill, I thought you were gonna get a job and do woodworking.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I think this is my job now.’”
To understand Clayton Keller’s rise to legitimate All-Star in his fifth NHL season, you have to understand the unique and powerful bond that Keller had with his maternal grandfather, who passed away on New Year’s Day 2015. Both of Keller’s parents insist that nobody had a greater impact on Clayton’s upbringing than Bill, but it was the cohesion of parts in that family unit that made it all work, whether it was Bill’s constant encouragement, his mother Kelley’s sacrifices, or Bryan’s tireless work ethic that made everything financially possible for Clayton and his younger brother Jake to pursue their hockey dreams.
“It’s hard for me to say that we lifted Clayton to this place where he is now because he did so much of it himself and I got so much out of it, too,” Kelley said. “But I do think it takes a village to raise a child. We gave him as much support as we could and I don’t know how we would have done it without Bill.”
Kelley Keller was still working as a paralegal when Clayton’s youth hockey career began. US Ice in Fairview Heights, Illinois was just a seven-minute drive from their home in Swansea, but when Cayton practiced in Chesterfield, Missouri, across the Mississippi River near St. Louis, they needed help.
“The rink in Chesterfield was an hour away, an hour and a half in traffic, and we couldn’t leave work early so Bill always took Clayton and then Jake to their practices and their games,” Kelley said. “Even when he didn’t have to, when we could go, he would still go to every single practice because he wanted to be there.
“We were lucky we lived by them, too. Bill and my mom (Sherry) were the next subdivision over so they were always, always there to help us.”
Bill knew that the boys would be hungry when he picked them up from school every day for practice, so he would make them ham and cheese sandwiches with chips, or they would stop at Lion’s Choice and grab a roast beef sandwich with Clayton’s favorite dipping sauce.
“We’d always get to the rink early,” Clayton said. “That’s kind of how I got all the pucks in my basement. I’d be there so early that I would just start watching the other practices. I’d walk around the rink and just pick up all the pucks that I saw. By the time I was 14, I had 1,000 pucks in my basement.”
The impact of those pucks can still be seen in the Kellers’ basement in Swansea; the one that Bryan turned into a shooting gallery complete with painted dasher boards, a full rack of sticks, Fatheads of Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, and abuse-worn Fatheads of goalies Roberto Luongo and Miikka Kiprusoff.
The boys would strap on their rollerblades and fire pucks for hours with Bill sitting nearby or Bryan sipping a glass of red wine while he blasted Pearl Jam or Red Hot Chili Peppers.
On off days, Bill imparted one of his greatest passions on the boys: fishing.
“In the summers, we would wake up super early in the morning and fish all day,” Clayton said. “Just local ponds, some bigger lakes in Missouri. It was mostly bass fishing with a little bit of crappie, bluegill and catfish. Sometimes, we’d bring it back and he would grill it.
“We talked about everything: life, hockey, school. It was just good to get away from everything with him. He’d have three beers — I think he drank Busch Lite — and he’d make me a lunch: ham and cheese, a bag of chips and he’d always have a soda for me, which I loved.
“I still love bass fishing. Anytime I’m home after the season, that’s literally the first thing I do with my buddies. I’ll have a little jon boat and we’ll just go out there and chill for like four hours. It definitely brings back memories with my grandpa.”
Jake loved fishing so much that he eventually gave up golf cold turkey to pursue the art in earnest.
“For some reason, I just wanted to fish and I had a craving to do it every day,” said Jake, who plays junior hockey for the New Mexico Ice Wolves of the NAHL. “I just felt like it would make him happy and I almost felt like that was a way to connect with him when he was gone.
“I know that sounds weird but it’s just the way I thought about it. I remember so much about those fishing trips. He always gave the best advice and he was always breaking up arguments between me and Clayton over who caught the bigger fish.”
While the Keller clan was teaming up to give Clayton and Jake every opportunity available, Clayton also benefited from a steady string of coaches who invested more than just time in his development. Rob Hutson took Clayton under his wing at US Ice when Clayton was a mite. Hutson convinced the Kellers to get Clayton into Triple-A hockey for better competition.
“He was just an excellent, excellent student,” Hutson said. “He was so driven that if you gave him something and he didn’t get it, the next time grandpa Bill brought him back to the rink he’d have it down.”
Hutson often allowed Keller to skate on the ice all by himself at night when there were no ice times scheduled. Bryan couldn’t skate, but he would open the door to the rink and toss pucks out of a bucket like passes for Clayton to corral and shoot.
“He was just this little water bug flying around the ice and he was just a great kid,” Hutson said. “People would always make statements like, ‘Oh, wait till he gets to pee wee when there’s checking.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, well, you can’t hit what you can’t catch.’ At a young age, he was just unbelievably focused and I knew there was talent there. I knew this kid was gonna be really, really special.”
Former Coyote Keith Tkachuk coached Clayton for a few years, imparting both the wisdom of a former NHL player, and the wisdom of a parent who was raising two boys (Matthew and Brady) who would end up traveling similar paths to Keller.
“He was probably one of the best youth hockey players I have ever seen,” Tkachuk said. “He was the kind of kid that as he got older, expectations were really high. You’d hear the name Clayton Keller around hockey rinks and youth hockey tournaments. People wanted to see him play so I felt there was a lot of pressure on the kid.
“You could tell sometimes on Clayton’s face, the pressure he felt, but it’s too young to put a lot of pressure on a kid like that. I mean, he seemed to rise to the occasion every single time, but when things didn’t go well, you had to remember that he was still a kid. I think it’s so important for coaches to make sure these kids can still be kids. You can’t get too upset at them. Sometimes, you’ve just got to take a step back and take a breath.”
Bryan admits that there were times when he drove Clayton hard, but when the coaches weren’t doing it themselves, Bill was always there to provide the balance.
“Honestly, he helped me become a better father,” Bryan said. “If I was pushing Clayton too hard he would be there to put everything in perspective and just let Clayton create his own path. And it was the subtle way that he did it without telling me that he was doing it. He was always there for him without asking for anything in return. It was all just pure love and you could see it because they were so close. They were joined at the hip.”
Sacrifice and sorrow
When it became clear that Clayton was destined for bigger things, the family decided to send him to hockey factory Shattuck St. Mary’s in Minnesota. The school has produced a who’s who of NHL alumni including Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, Derek Stepan and Jack Johnson.
Keller won a USA Hockey Tier I Youth National Championship at Shattuck with Bill and the family in attendance, and when he got invited to the USA National Team Development Program, Bill volunteered to move to Ann Arbor, Michigan with Clayton to take care of him.
Kelley assumed that duty after Bill received bad news from his doctors.
“We didn’t tell the boys a lot right away because we really didn’t know all the facts then,” Kelley said. “They first found a brain tumor and then they realized that it metastasized from the lungs. Bill was supposed to take Clayton to the airport for USA Hockey; it was their big festival tryout before the team. We had to make up a reason why he couldn’t and I remember telling Clayton, ‘Grandpa doesn’t feel well. He has a doctor’s appointment.’”
While Bill began treatments, Kelley and Bryan split up child-rearing duties with Jake back home in Illinois and Clayton in Michigan.
“It was actually great fun for me because I got to travel all over the place,” Kelley said. “Every time Clayton’s team went out of town, I would travel with Jake. I’d either meet him in Detroit where they were playing or fly home and then fly with Jake.”
Kelley also became a surrogate mom to other NTDP players whose parents were not in Ann Arbor.
“It felt like I was at the grocery store every other day getting food because sometimes a player would come over and eat so you were just pretty much feeding them, making sure they were doing their homework, getting their stuff washed and clean,” she said, laughing. “On Thanksgiving I remember cooking a small turkey and having one of the players over before the team went out of town because his parents weren’t in town. They ate, they left and I caught a flight and flew home and had Thanksgiving at home with Jake and Bryan.”
Bill’s health deteriorated quickly. He was hospitalized and word spread quickly through the St. Louis hockey community. Tkachuk visited him in the hospital to offer his support.
“Bill was one of us,” Tkachuk said. “He spent a lot of time at the rinks and on trips. He always stood behind the goal with his team jacket on, he would talk to anybody and he never had a bad thing to say about anybody.
“I knew he wasn’t doing very good and I didn’t know how long he had so I wanted to go pay my respects. I’m glad I went over to see him because not soon after that he passed away. I think about that as a dad. That’s a lot for kids to handle at that age when he was basically a second father to those boys. It just hits you right in the gut.”
Clayton and Jake were home for Christmas and saw Bill, but on the evening of New Year’s Day 2015, Bryan walked into Jake’s room and delivered the news that Bill had passed.
“We always watched the Winter Classic together so on the first of January, I went to see him with my grandma,” Jake said. “I just kind of held his hand and told him that I loved him and then I went home, still in a disbelief kind of stage, thinking he was going to be fine. When I was getting ready for bed, my dad walked in and broke the news to me and I just broke down and gave him a big hug.”
The next day, Clayton honored his grandfather in the best way he knew how: He had a hat trick, including the game-winner in OT as the NTDP beat Green Bay. Just as he did after the Coyotes’ Hockey Fights Cancer Night earlier this season, Keller broke down after the game.
“It was a special moment for sure,” he said.
The fruits of a labor of love
Days before Keller headed to Las Vegas to participate in the NHL All-Star Game, Kelley was at his home in the Valley, helping Clayton make decisions on appliances in a house that was supposed to be ready more than a year ago, but has been delayed by supply chain and construction issues.
The house is symbolic of Keller’s maturation, but also of his emerging elite status in the NHL ranks. It has a sport court, a putting green and an area in the backyard where he can tee off to practice his other great sporting love, golf.
Like a proud papa, Bryan insists that Clayton could play on the PGA Tour and most Coyotes players will tell you that he is the best golfer on the team. He has played with PGA star Kevin Streelman, who has introduced him to other pros. When he isn’t playing, practicing or working out in the Valley, Keller is probably golfing.
But that all takes a back seat to his current passion. Keller will take part in the NHL Accuracy Shooting competition on Friday evening as part of the NHL All-Star Skills events at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. On Saturday, he will suit up for the Central Division for the NHL All-Star Game. While there was some question as to whether he deserved his first honor in 2019, there is little doubt that he belongs on that stage now. Since a slow start in October that mirrored his team, Keller has 34 points in 36 games since Nov. 1.
“He’s heavy on pucks and he wins a lot of battles. That’s the impressive part for him,” coach André Tourigny said. “Everybody knows Kells has talent, but if you’d have said at the beginning of the season ‘Would he be in the All-Star Game?’ he would have probably said he would be, because he is so competitive. But it was not a slam dunk. He earned it, earned the respect of everybody inside the organization and outside around the league.”
Kelley and Bryan will be there for the game. So will some friends and associates, but Clayton can’t help but think about the one guy who won’t be in attendance.
“Sometimes it sucks not having him around because he was such a big part of my life,” Clayton said of Bill. “When I was struggling, he was someone that I wanted to reach out to.
“I think it would definitely mean a lot to him to see me here and to see what I’m doing this season. He always believed in me and always knew that I’d be here one day. He would have loved to see it but I know he’s still up there watching every single game no matter what.”
At 23 and 19, the boys don’t need the guidance, tutelage and care that they once did. But when she thinks about the man who raised her after her father-by-blood died in an accident while she was an infant, Kelley can’t help but marvel at the powerful lesson that Bill taught everyone about the importance of family.
“I think there’s just so much you can get from a grandparent,” Kelley said. “I was close to my grandfather so I know. I think that they just felt all that unconditional love. You get that from parents but it’s still different from a grandparent. Parents can be a little harder on their kids but the grandparents can take a different role and that’s what he always did.
“I remember him saying this exact thing to us all the time: ‘My job is just to give them all the love that’s in my heart, offer guidance and above all, to create fond memories.’”