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Sheldon Keefe saw many a Marlie exit his office for their big shot with the Maple Leafs and the NHL.
He’d shake their hand and say something like ‘you’ve earned this and I don’t expect to see you back down here’. On Wednesday, Keefe was getting the same send-off from an appreciative farm team, who believe Keefe will kill it in The Show, starting Thursday in Glendale, Ariz.
“It’s going to be a seamless transition when he looks down that bench and sees all the guys he’s coached,” said ex-Leaf and current Leafs Nation Network analyst Bob McGill, who works Marlies games on radio with Todd Crocker. “And the guys know what they’re getting in him. A lot of them won a Calder Cup with him (in 2018). It’s amazing having watched him these last four years; how he gets to know guys 1-on-1, to sit and talk and joke with them. He’s a guy players can relate to.”
Where Mike Babcock and his staff could unwind in a charter jet after a game and review the good and bad, the 39-year-old Keefe spent close to 10 years on the buses with American Hockey League and before that, the Tier II Pembroke Lumber Kings, often brutal AHL scheduling of 3-in-3s, going over game and player reports for his bosses in the middle of the winter night from Laval to Lehigh Valley.
“To me, he’s earned this chance,” said McGill, “first with something like 199 wins in 319 games and a .672 win percentage, but I just think his preparation is outstanding. He can break down a game to defend an offensive team, generate offence on his own team, then convey all that easily to the players.
“He’ll be ready to help turn this around and I expect some energy (Thursday) when you’ve got a new coach and you want to win the first game for him.”
The thought of losing Keefe to another NHL team gnawed at Kyle Dubas from the moment he was put in charge of the farm team as an assistant general manager. His first hire was his compatible coach from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, first noticed by Dubas when running the Lumber Kings.
Keefe made inroads right away, and soon a convoy of Marlies was moving up the Gardiner Expressway from old Ricoh Coliseum to the Air Canada Centre/Scotiabank Arena.
The current group of grads includes William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Andreas Johnsson (the 2018 Calder playoff MVP), Kasperi Kapanen, Travis Dermott, Frederik Gauthier, Martin Marincin, Justin Holl, Dmytro Timashov, Trevor Moore, Pierre Engvall and Kasimir Kaskisuo. Would 2018 AHL goalie of the year Garret Sparks fared better under Keefe than Babcock, who kicked him right out of the dressing room? We’ll never know.
In playoffs, Keefe had the best winning percentage of any AHL coach in his first 50 post-season games and last season passed Dallas Eakins for most regular-season wins by a Marlies coach.
There was worry a couple of years ago that Keefe might join Dubas’s former boss, Lou Lamoriello, on Long Island or maybe be brought along as one of Babcock’s new assistants (how interesting would that have been?). But he signed a two-year contract extension last spring after another long playoff run almost got the Marlies to another Calder final.
“This is the best job outside the NHL,” Keefe said at the time about sticking it out with the farm team — which also let him stay in his GTA home, keep his kids in school here and be near his parents. “I’ve grown a lot in my time here and will continue to grow. I really enjoy the off-season here because you have a chance to implement different things; off-ice stuff and how you communicate to players.
“I’ve been an assistant coach at different levels and I respect the position, but I see myself as a head coach and that’s my focus. I’m happy in this organization. All the resources are here, not only in players. Human and financial resources are things we need to develop successful Leafs and Marlies teams.”
AHL/NHL veteran Chris Mueller pegged Keefe as a future coach quite awhile ago.
“He’s an up-and-coming young coach who believes in evolving with the game,” said the ex-Marlies forward. “He strives for greatness and pushes his players and even more importantly, himself, to be better every day.
“He wants to play a fast-paced, defence-first structured game, but his biggest strength is he’s always willing to adapt. If his game plan isn’t working, he’s willing to change. Sometimes people get stuck in their ways and their teams fizzle out. Sheldon’s teams just keep getting stronger.
“As a player, all you want is a truthful coach who pushes you to the limit to give the team the best chance. A coach like that, you’ll follow him and believe in him.”
THE KEEFE FILE
Named 31st head coach of the Leafs on Nov. 20 … Born Sept. 17, 1980, Brampton, Ont … Played GTHL with the Toronto Young Nationals … His best junior season was 1998–99 with the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors and Barrie Colts, with 116 points … Named OHL Rookie of the Year, beating two future Leafs, Jason Spezza and Brad Boyes … Drafted 47th overall in 1999 by Tampa Bay, played 125 NHL games … After a knee injury in 2004-05, Keefe retired, bought into the Tier II Pembroke Lumber Kings and eventually worked up to be GM/coach of the successful franchise … Brought in halfway through 2012-13 to coach the OHL Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds by GM Kyle Dubas, Keefe won 44 games his first full season … Hired by Dubas and the Leafs in 2015, Keefe was on the verge of 200 regular season victories when promoted to the Leafs, already the winningest coach in the Marlies’ CNE era and the AHL’s highest win percentage in playoffs … The Calder Cup his team won was the first championship by a Toronto pro team since the ‘67 Leafs … Married with two sons … Brother Adam played and coached in Great Britain.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019