TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe thought he had a reasonably good understanding of his new world.
The proprietor/head coach of the Pembroke Lumber Kings — a junior-A hockey staff positioned about 150 kilometres northwest of Ottawa — was profitable title after title.
Keefe, a younger man attempting to push back the demons that got here to outline him as a young person earlier than a knee damage abruptly ended his on-ice aspirations as a professional, was the toast of the city.
He gained an unprecedented 5 straight league championships, culminating with a victory within the 2011 RBC Cup, junior-A’s nationwide crown.
The success helped Keefe get an invitation into Hockey Canada’s fold for a few occasions. He began speaking to individuals outdoors his bubble regularly and got here to a fast realization.
“I didn’t know very a lot,” Keefe, who was additionally Pembroke’s normal supervisor, recalled considering. “It opened my eyes to simply how a lot the sport modified and advanced. Once you’re a former participant, it’s pure to simply choose what you knew. I had fallen behind. That’s what occurs whenever you don’t proceed to develop and study.
“The most important factor for me was realizing, ‘Holy crap I actually don’t know that a lot. I’ve received to get to work.”’
That particular wake-up name — the same willingness to vary that highlights what’s been dubbed by a pal as Keefe’s “new life” following his severing of ties with disgraced coach/agent David Frost — stretched into 2012.
It landed him on the radar of Kyle Dubas when the 20-something-whiz-kid GM of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds was in search of a brand new coach.
Dubas, whose hockey outlook is formed by a forward-thinking method, received his man with Keefe. And after Dubas signed on as assistant GM with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014 at age 28, Keefe was put in behind the bench with the Marlies, the membership’s high farm staff, some 12 months later.
Having gained final yr’s Calder Cup and within the midst of one other American Hockey League playoff run sparked by back-to-back sweeps to open the 2019 post-season, the 38-year-old is inching ever nearer to an NHL job.
It may come this summer time or additional down the highway, however each time it occurs, the seed was planted in Pembroke after a promising enjoying profession — Keefe led the OHL in scoring in 1999-00 with 121 factors — ended with simply 125 NHL video games over 5 professional seasons.
“I had depth charts of the Pembroke Lumber Kings on my partitions in my cottage,” he mentioned. “I began to develop a ardour for it in that sense, nevertheless it undoubtedly wasn’t one thing I used to be fascinated by whereas enjoying.”
Keefe already owned the Lumber Kings when he blew out his knee within the AHL. He began serving to out as an assistant and took over behind the bench in June 2006 at age 25.
That, at the least partially, helped fill a void.
“I nonetheless had the itch to play,” Keefe mentioned. “However I developed an actual ardour for teaching and developed some actual ties in the neighborhood.”
Alongside the way in which, nonetheless, Keefe needed to present individuals his checkered hockey historical past was certainly previously.
Chosen by the Tampa Bay Lightning within the 1999 NHL draft, Keefe had an extended reference to Frost as his coach and agent, and was a pal and teammate of Mike Danton.
Danton, who was born Mike Jefferson, was convicted of plotting to kill Frost, his then-agent, in a weird murder-for-hire scheme in the USA whereas enjoying for the St. Louis Blues in 2004. Frost, in the meantime, was acquitted in 2008 on 4 counts of sexual exploitation courting again to his time teaching a junior staff in Deseronto, Ont., the place each Keefe and Jefferson performed within the mid-1990s.
Keefe was by no means charged with any crime, however his affiliation with the pair, some headline-grabbing antics in junior and popularity had been broadly identified.
“Making the choice to develop into a full-time coach and run the operation myself … that was actually the second for me the place I’d say I had an opportunity to create a brand new id for myself,” mentioned Keefe, now married with two sons. “Every little thing I did was going to fall on me.”
Jon Hull performed in opposition to Keefe in junior, however they turned shut throughout his one season as an assistant with the Lumber Kings.
“I received to know him form of initially of his new life,” mentioned Hull, GM of the USHL’s Lincoln Stars in Nebraska. “I at all times mentioned to him that if everyone may see the individual I do know, it’ll be a no brainer.”
“Everybody has issues they need they hadn’t accomplished,” added Kevin Abrams, who was head coach/GM in Pembroke for a few seasons when Keefe first purchased the staff earlier than changing into the league’s commissioner. “The best way he carried himself and the extent of professionalism, it was to date eliminated it wasn’t even a problem.”
Keefe first met Dubas — promoted to the Leafs’ GM job final spring — when the latter was an agent with junior-A shoppers and got here away impressed. He stored a watch on his colleague from afar, leaping on the probability when provided the teaching gig in Sault Ste. Marie.
The willingness to adapt has continued beneath Dubas.
“Our relationship has grown,” mentioned Keefe, a local of Brampton, Ont. “He actually opened my eyes to how a lot there’s to study and the way to take a look at issues a little bit bit in a different way.”
Hull mentioned Dubas has impacted the way in which lots of people take a look at hockey — Keefe included.
“His affect on Sheldon has been immense,” Hull mentioned. “For those who appeared on the means Sheldon’s groups performed from the time he was in Pembroke to Sault Ste. Marie to Toronto, he’s modified quite a bit.”
Hull, who received to know Dubas via Keefe, added the Leafs GM as soon as instructed him: “Every little thing is altering, at all times.”
It’s a perspective Keefe has additionally come to imagine — one which impacts his teaching model sport to sport and even interval to interval. That view in all probability sounds refreshing to Leafs followers, who had been left pissed off by head coach Mike Babcock’s stubbornness within the staff’s first-round playoff exit.
“You’ve received a construction and a basis,” Keefe mentioned. “However weekly you’re including to that or adjusting that, whether or not it’s to a sure opponent or how issues could be becoming with this explicit group of gamers.
“That’s an enormous factor.”
Keefe, who will lead the Marlies into the AHL’s Jap Convention closing, insists he’s a affected person individual. However with Babcock midway via an eight-year contract, it’s doable he might need to look elsewhere for an NHL job.
“I’m in no rush,” Keefe mentioned. “The best way I method this isn’t in contrast to the message we give to our gamers, which is different individuals within the enterprise decide whenever you’re prepared or whenever you’re deserving of a chance.
“Your job is to work day by day to be as prepared as doable if or when that decision comes.”
Given his success up to now, it’s a name that may come sooner relatively than later.