The Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach may have grown up in the Greater Toronto Area, but Sheldon Keefe was not a fan of the blue and white. “I kind of bounced around with my favourite players because I was a Mario Lemieux fan – I was a Penguins fan for a long period of time. I flipped over to the Flyers because I became a big Eric Lindros fan… I was a little more fair-weather. I think I kind of went with who was the best and where my favourite players generally played,” said Keefe.
If that wasn’t bad enough, it actually got worse as Keefe continued, “my dad was, and is, well, he admits it a lot less often, he is or was a huge Habs fan.” But fear not Leafs Nation, Keefe’s next line will make you feel better, “I’ve never been a Habs fan, and certainly not these days, but that was always a good competition, whoever the Habs were playing, I’d take the other side.”
The coach invited Aeroplan members into his home office, virtually of course, for a casual conversation. Christine Simpson asked questions that were submitted by people who signed up for the event. This format offered far more insight into the 31st coach in franchise history than we are accustoming to seeing.
Earning Respect of Players
The 40-year-old, who is working his first NHL coaching job, was asked how he gained player’s respect, especially players who are around the same age. Keefe said there were 12 players on the roster who he had coached with the Marlies. He’d been at five Toronto training camps as well, so he had some familiarity and existing relationships in place. However, Keefe said the process of earning respect is a continuous one, “every single day you go and address the team, you have to earn their respect. You can’t go in and say the wrong thing, or you can’t go in unprepared. You can’t go in and give them the wrong information. You know, I’m not always gonna be perfect, gotta own mistakes, mistakes are inevitable.”
He also said every coach in the NHL was inexperienced at one time. “But whether you’re a Hall of Fame coach where you’ve won Stanley Cups have been around the League, you know, for decades or you’re like me and starting fresh, you get a chance to walk in the room and earn the players respect. Get a chance to walk into the room and show that you know what you’re talking about. Players only care if you could help them win. They want to succeed individually. They want to succeed as a team. If you can help them towards that goal, they don’t care how experienced you are… If they don’t feel you can help them, they don’t care how experienced you are either, that gets old quick, so it’s about every day.”
A fan of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner asked Keefe what it is like to coach superstars, “it’s a pleasure! Obviously, you know the better players you have helps your ability to coach and win and succeed greatly, so having players of that calibre is terrific.” Keefe, who was selected 47th overall in the 1999 draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning, talked about the superstar players’ work ethic. “I don’t think players of that calibre get enough attention for how hard they work and the burden that they carry to be great and be special every day. I think they are really special people that way… They’re always looking to grow. They’re not just set on who they are; they’re studying the game. They’re watching other people around the League. If they see something, you’ll see them trying it the next day in practice and consistently adjusting. I think it’s just that. They have a love for the game, and I can’t say enough about how hard they work.”
In contrast, an attendee criticized the Leafs for being too fancy and giving away the puck. The fan asked: how the coach supports creativity but prevents costly giveaways? “Great question, really great question,” Keefe began his answer with a chuckle. Keefe, himself was a high scoring, skilled forward. He recorded 121 points in just 66 games with the Barrie Colts in the 1999-2000 season. While he allows his highly skilled players to do things that make highlight reels, he said it is a balance. “I’ve really worked with our guys and giving them the freedom to use their skills and use the intelligence that they have to be able to make great plays. Or really try to educate them about understanding situations, understanding who has the advantage in a certain situation.”
When his team has the advantage in space, time or numbers, Keefe said, “I want and expect our elite players to look to make something happen. And if that’s the case and it doesn’t go well, we’ll live with that. We will have structure to make sure we can recover.” He also demands his players to recognize when the opposition has the upper hand, “I expect our players to recognize those situations and make an intelligent play or safer play if you want to call it that to protect the puck and protect our structure, protect the game, take care of it.”
It’s an interesting dilemma, for Keefe to let skilled players do their thing or stick to a rigid structure. “That’s part of the burden that these guys have because, you know, we could put them on the ice and we could get them to make the safest play every single time, and you would finish the game, and you would say, oh, at least we didn’t turn the puck over at all tonight. But then we look at it and say I don’t know if they had a scoring chance all night either.”
The Importance of Women’s Hockey
The Maple Leafs announced a formal partnership with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association in February. Keefe, whose sons play minor hockey, is proud of the organization’s support of women in the sport but believes much more can be done. “I think we need to look at it further down the line at the amateur level, the youth level, to give families and girls the support they need and exposure they need to continue to grow the game and provide opportunities for them to continue to develop and have something to aspire to, not unlike my sons have. I think that is big – and there have been great steps along the way; there is a lot more work to be done. I think as a hockey community, we need to step up in that regard.”
The topic came up when a fan asked about women in hockey, and Hayley Wickenheiser, Toronto’s Assistant Director of Player Development. “She really is one of my favourite people,” said Keefe, who lit up talking about the Hockey Hall of Fame player. “I don’t even want to say I know her that well because she comes in and out, and as we all know, she is one of the busiest people I’ve ever met. She is everywhere and doing everything. It just speaks to her brilliance that goes so far beyond what she has given to the game, which is extensive.”
Keefe has been a long-time fan of the four-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time World Championship gold medalist, “for me, as I grew up, she is the female Wayne Gretzky of hockey, and we have that mind working with us,” said Keefe, who realized later in life there’s more to Wickenheiser than hockey. “As you learn when you are around her, she has so many other things that she offers with her experience and her perspective and ambition that she got involved in the medical field, to having a Hall of Famer that makes a difference in the world, she is such a great example for us.”
Things We Don’t Realize about the Job
Keefe attends his son’s minor hockey games whenever he can. He told listeners that people at the rink are often surprised by the time his job demands. He used a recent Saturday night home game as an example. He left his house at 7:30 in the morning and got back at 11:30 that night. He says several times during the season, he is gone before his wife and kids are awake and gets home after they’ve gone to sleep. “That’s probably the greatest grind and challenge of the schedule. Of course, you are fueled by the passion you have for the game and the opportunity to compete on the level we do and on the stage that we do. But we can’t do so without the support of our families.”
According to Keefe, there is a perception that coaching in the NHL is like coaching minor hockey, where you show up a few hours before game time, have a few conversations and then get behind the bench a navigate the game. That’s not the case. “There is a lot of work that goes into what you see on the ice in today’s game more than ever. With today’s athletes, there is so much more of a demand for information and preparation, and you have to know what you are talking about. We have so many resources at our disposal to prepare the team. It does require an exhaustive process to go through that even when you are playing the same team over and over, there is still a lot that goes into making sure we optimize the group.”
Motivating the Players
On the topic of optimizing the group, he was questioned on motivating the team and asked if it’s the coaches’ or players’ responsibility. “The players certainly have a lot to do with it, but the coaches, without a doubt they set the parameters for the day. They set the mood; they set the environment with the decisions they make and how they communicate to the team. So that is a significant part of what I do.”
His answer reflects how this article began and the respect that he works to earn from his players every day. “For me, I’m consistently thinking about the mood of the team and the environment that I set when I walk into a room and address the team. That is my opportunity to set the tone for the day. I have to know what the players need for that day. If I get that wrong, I’m setting them up for failure in that sense, and I’m working against the energy of the team. We want to be a team that has a great spirit and has a lot of fun competing in doing what we do. I’ve got to keep that in mind; I’ve got to keep it fun and loose, I’ve got to keep it fresh. Yet I’ve got to push the team, I’ve got to hold the team accountable, so I recognize my role within it.”
Keefe talked about adding players like Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds to bring energy and personality to the dressing room. “I wholeheartedly believe that the best teams are the teams where the players really do embody the things you want to be about as an organization. That’s why we felt we needed to grow and get more leaders, have essentially a team of leaders… I think the spirit of the team is so important when we are in a draft and salary cap system in the NHL. The parity in the league is so tight and so competitive the spirit of the team really does make a difference. That is an area we really wanted to grow in this season. I’m encouraged with what we have.”
Despite a recent slump, Keefe has successfully led a team in the spotlight and under the microscope. He continues to rewrite the Leafs’ record books with his early success. Not bad when you consider that book includes coaches like Pat Burns, Pat Quinn and Mike Babcock. Sure, he inherited a skilled roster, but as you read in this article, even that presents challenges. While Toronto fans were not sure about a rookie head coach taking over the team, his meticulous attention to detail, enthusiasm for the game, and his continuous effort to gain respect have rightfully earned Leaf Nation’s admiration.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.