The Maple Leafs announced Monday former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds bench boss as new head coach of their AHL affiliate Marlies organization. A decade after Keefe’s NHL playing days ended, he’s shaken off past struggles and his triumphs now allow him to connect with a new generation of youngsters.
The hockey world can be snow-globe small sometimes. Good news and bad news travels throughout it at the same velocity. Parts of your history can follow you around like a camouflaged zombie, blending into the background, but always lurking. Some never recover from the ghosts of the past, but some of the best stories in the sport come from the people who make the most of their second chances and who don’t allow their history to define who they are in the present day.
On Monday in Toronto, Sheldon Keefe continued to make the most of his second chance in the game: the Maple Leafs named him head coach of their American League affiliate Marlies squad. And while the 34-year-old’s road to a coaching opportunity many would maim for hasn’t always been smooth, his challenges on and off the ice have given him unique tools through which to develop players for an organization that hasn’t been especially good at it.
It wasn’t all that long ago Keefe was an NHL prospect whose star seemed firmly in ascent. We’re talking about someone drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning 47th overall in 1999. Someone who was the Ontario League’s rookie of the year that same year, and the OHL’s top scorer the following regular season, when he amassed 48 goals and 121 points for the Barrie Colts. But this was also a kid associated with notorious former coach and player agent David Frost, and sure enough, Keefe was judged by the company he kept; as Frost’s relationship with former Blues and Devils player Mike Danton made awful headlines (and eventually led to a slew of criminal charges), Keefe was tainted as one of Frost’s “Brampton Boys” (a nod to Keefe’s Ontario hometown). Then his on-ice career fizzled – Keefe was out of professional hockey after the 2004-05 campaign, with just 124 NHL games to his credit – and he was at a crossroads at age 24.
There’s no masking how toxic the situation had become for Keefe at that point in his life. But he methodically and permanently distanced himself from Frost, and began a new path as a coach. And in the 10 years that followed, he has proven himself – whether it was with the Jr. A Pembroke Pembroke Lumber Kings, the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, or in various capacities with Hockey Canada – to be a worthy bench boss and a man who can connect with today’s player.
Keefe’s past is now fully behind him thanks to the hard work and results that followed. And as he reflected shortly after the press conference announcing him as Marlies coach, he admitted the adversity he’s overcome has made him better in his current profession.
“I try not to get caught up in that side of it too much or think about it all that much,” Keefe said of the bad times, “But on days like this happen and my phone has been going non-stop all day you start to realize all the people you’ve connected with along the way and that are happy for you. And you recognize that’s had an impact on people, and that feels good. It obviously started with (Leafs assistant GM and his former boss in Sault Ste. Marie) Kyle Dubas believing in me coming out of the junior A level, and there were a number of people previous to that – people in Hockey Canada and a number of others – who gave me opportunities. So you think about a lot of that. There’s a lot of great coaches out there, and to be given this opportunity is special – but all the more special when you realize it hasn’t been an easy path all the way through.”
Keefe’s initial rise and fall through the hockey industry as a player give him special insight the Leafs value greatly as they rebuild their franchise and look to youngsters such as William Nylander to serve as their foundation. Keefe can identify with young prospects on the rise, but he also can reach the kid who may be on a second chance of his own, or the veteran aching for one more shot at the big time. To hear him tell it, that’s what Keefe has been doing for the past three seasons with the Greyhounds, with whom he earned a new reputation as one of hockey’s up-and-coming teachers and motivators.
“Some of the circumstances are different as you climb the ranks and deal with older players, but at all different levels you’re dealing with two different spectrums of players – the players that are succeeding and finding their way or the players who are struggling,” Keefe said. “There’s different levels of that throughout hockey. Just like there’s players here who are on the cusp of being NHLers or not, there are players like that in the OHL: some are just begging to get drafted, and others know where they’re going to be and know they’re going to be high picks. So the process is similar. You just have to be sensitive to the unique circumstances. And I think it’s been a strength of mine to look at the human side of it and the different things that may be contributing to what’s happening and the emotions guys are going through.”
Keefe obviously was familiar with Dubas, who in July of last year joined Toronto as a lieutenant to team president Brendan Shanahan. But he slowly came to know the Hockey Hall-of-Famer – first, when Shanahan and Dubas hosted the Greyhounds team during an NHL game this past season, then again when Shanahan came out to see Sault Ste. Marie in a playoff game, and finally, during the interview process for the Marlies job – and came away thrilled with what he heard in regard to Shanahan’s plans to build a championship-caliber organization.
“I was very impressed with him, both in spending time with him and from a distance, reading and watching him,” Keefe said of Shanahan. “Brendan asks a lot of questions, and you can tell he’s always gathering a lot of information. I’m highly impressed with his vision, his demeanor and his plan, and I’m happy to be welcomed in as part of it.”
Keefe also relishes the chance to work with new Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. He says it’s paramount the NHL coach and his AHL counterpart work closely to ensure a continuity of message and expectation for the team’s developing assets. And he sees himself not as a man now on an island fighting for his job security a short drive from Air Canada Centre, but as a soldier in Babcock’s battalion.
“I had a chance to sit down spend some time with him as part of this process, and since this decision was made we’ve exchanged some phone calls, voicemails, tried to catch up,” Keefe said of Babcock. “But he’s made it clear he’s going to be open to having me around and involved, and I recognize the importance of that. It’s paramount for me to learn his systems, to learn his language, to learn what he values in his players, and to bring that information here.
“I really look at myself in a lot of ways as an extension of Mike Babcock’s staff. I look forward to learning from him on a personal level as a coach, but also to be able to be a better asset for the Maple Leafs and the Marlies. I also look at myself as an extension of the player development department as well and plan on working extremely close with those guys as well.”
Keefe has already hit the ground running with his new team. He’s already met with new Leafs player development director Scott Pellerin and is soaking in as much as he can. And he’s a shining example of what anyone in the hockey business can do with a second chance.
“It makes me grateful, because you don’t get to this point unless people are willing to give you opportunities and open some doors for you,” Keefe said. “I can’t wait to get started.”