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Reading the Maple Leafs players for motivation purposes no easy feat for Keefe

Sheldon Keefe, chatting with Auston Matthews during a practice, says motivation is a personal thing and that he doesn’t rely on “just one communication style.”  
Sheldon Keefe, chatting with Auston Matthews during a practice, says motivation is a personal thing and that he doesn’t rely on “just one communication style.”  

On a team that will range from teens to a 41-year-old, Sheldon Keefe will have to use every motivational trick in his coaching manual.

While impatient Leafs Nation is already wondering if the team can finally win a playoff round whenever the NHL is back, Keefe must get them there first. And post-season comments such as Mitch Marner saying he wasn’t engaged enough in Game 1 against Columbus underline Keefe’s challenge to read the various personalities on the team.

To that end, he has compiled a large volume of notations the past 15 years, to which everything from practice music to a night-time text to players are indexed.

“Motivation is a funny thing. It comes, it goes, it wavers,” Keefe told host Danielle Emanuele on Sunday during the Maple Leafs’ online Coaches Open House. “We try and really tap into the players. What’s their inspiration, their passion? Why have they committed their lives to hockey? It’s not just on the back of motivation, they must be truly inspired by something. As coach, it’s important to learn what that is.

“You’re constantly looking for a way to connect the day with a story line, what a game has to do with the standings, what occurred against that team previously. But not everyone will respond to a certain message. Some players want it very direct, good or bad. Some, you have to build up with positives first. Some want to see it on video. Some want to talk face-to-face. Some are good with just shooting them a text message to think about as they’re going to bed.

“A lot of our job is to keep the fire burning. You have to find ways to change it up. The season is long or the team is tired. That’s when I’ll bring in music at practice or more competitive drills, to get them moving.”

But he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.

“In some cases, they’ll respond better to one of our assistant coaches or (general manager) Kyle Dubas, maybe a teammate. I might send them to the gym or strength coach and trust their expertise. Maybe they have to work on their own mental side. Sometimes (players) have great suggestions, sometimes they’re off-base.

“It’s very personal. You can’t have just one communication style.”


Keefe says his time spent at the Seattle Seahawks training camp in 2019 made a huge impression on his coaching ethos. He’d read up on their leader, Pete Carroll, and was granted observer status and two 45-minute audiences in his office.

“Pete has a two-word philosophy: ‘Always compete’. The way he defines it is not just about competing against other people, it’s competing with yourself, to always be evolving, seeking to improve. There are lots of layers you can add to that, always competing to push your teammates, challenge your opponents and give yourself an edge.

“The dynamics of an NFL team have always fascinated me. I was fortunate to be inside with Pete and see what ‘always compete’ looks like on the field. The Seahawks have 28 coaches and their staff meetings are massive. It’s not so much coaching the players, it’s coaching the coaches and organizing them … I was fascinated with how they co-ordinate and execute all of that.”


While the Keefe-Dubas relationship has run a lot smoother than the closing months of Mike Babcock’s tenure behind the bench, the life-long friends through three different teams do quarrel. Loudly.

“We’ve grown close, but disagree almost on a daily basis,” Keefe said with a laugh. “At times, it gets very heated. Even though we’re aligned in our vision of where we want to go and how to get there, we’ll have some debate.

“It’s not always rosy, but that’s what I love about it. Because we’re so aligned, we’re able to move on, make the right decisions at that time and get focused.”

During Saturday’s session of the Open House, Dubas noted that this is the duo’s first off-season preparatory work at the NHL level after their time with the OHL Soo Greyhounds and AHL Marlies. Dubas says their approach to camp shouldn’t change from earlier stops.

“What are the standards of setting the tone of fitness and strength,” Dubas said. “What is going to be fully expected? So, a player who’s 6-foot-4, 230 pounds doesn’t have the same expectations of one who’s 5-foot-8 and 180?

“There’s so much focus based on us bringing in one or two players (big men Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds). But the reality is, that level of toughness is going to have to permeate throughout the room. It’s going to be the maturity of our group that’s already there and our (young) core group really embracing that this is a wonderful opportunity — if they’re willing to sacrifice a little bit in each of their individual realms as all young teams have to do.”


Keefe’s general advice to aspiring coaches: “There’s really no excuse not to make yourself better. There’s so much out there on the internet, social media, simple Google searches and YouTube, not to mention books” … Keefe, who has been able to work with his 10 and 8-year-old playing sons during this unplanned hiatus, emphasized the old adage for minor hockey coaches to keep practices fluid and alleviate boredom. “It’s really about the kids’ age (but) once they have the ability to skate and handle the puck, then you can work towards game-type drills and feel their way through it. The amount of time you don’t have them in line and mimic what the game looks like with a lot of decisions in a short period of time, I believe is a lot more fun. If they’re not at that level, break it down and work on fundamentals” … Among the features during the open house were hockey-related exercises for kids in the home during the pandemic, including use of dollar store balls, kitchen utensils and stuffed animals.

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