What Sheldon Keefe lacks in experience, he more than makes up for in results.
The 37-year-old head coach of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies has produced quite an impressive track record in a very short amount of time. After a highly successful tenure with the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Keefe took over the Marlies and, in his very first season with the team, led them to an AHL-best regular season record. No other team was close.
He’s also coached a lot of young players along the way that are now enjoying success in the NHL, many of whom speak highly of their former coach.
These results haven’t gone unnoticed by hockey media sources, many of whom brought up Keefe’s name as a potential coaching candidate for both the Florida Panthers and the Buffalo Sabres last year, and now the New York Rangers and Dallas Stars this spring. Apparently the Calgary Flames aren’t interested.
It’s safe to assume that owners and general managers all across the NHL have noticed Keefe as well.
If Dallas Stars General Manager Jim Nill is considering Keefe as a potential replacement for the recently retired Ken Hitchcock, he will have to be diligent. There are other NHL coaching vacancies right now with the Rangers, the Flames, and the Carolina Hurricanes. There’s also the potential that other league coaches could be on the hot seat and more job openings will follow in the near future.
The better question for right now is should Nill view Keefe as a potential head coaching fit for the Stars?
The short answer: yes.
Keefe’s track record speaks for itself, and besides, there’s little harm in doing research, making some calls to sources, and maybe scheduling an interview if you like what you hear.
For the long answer, let’s dig a little more into who Keefe is as a coach — and as a person — to get a better idea of what he might bring to the Stars organization.
Like many NHL coaches, Keefe is a former NHLer. He was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2nd round of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft and played parts of three seasons with the Lightning, appearing in 125 career NHL games and scoring 24 total points. He retired from playing after the 2004-05 season due to a serious knee injury.
Keefe didn’t stay out of hockey for long, however.
Before retiring, in the summer of 2003, he purchased the Pembroke Lumber Kings, a Junior “A” team based out of an Ontario town of about 13,000 people. He took over the hands-on role of assistant coach in 2005-2006, became head coach in 2006-2007, and then immediately led Pembroke to a league championship — the organization’s first since 1985. The Lumber Kings then rattled off four more in a row for good measure, the last of which also resulted in a national Junior “A” championship.
To say that Keefe has the reputation of a small town folk hero in Pembroke isn’t an exaggeration.
His next stop was Sault Ste. Marie, getting hired by the Greyhounds during the 2012-2013 OHL season. He coached two full seasons with the team, producing the league’s best regular-season record in 2014-2015 and made the OHL conference finals that postseason. (It took Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters to stop them.) Current NHLers that played under Keefe in Sault Ste. Marie include Matt Murray, Darnell Nurse, Jared McCann, and Nick Ritchie.
His rapidly upward career trajectory continued in 2015-2016 when Kyle Dubas, who was the same Greyhounds GM that hired Keefe and was now working as the assistant GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs and GM of the Toronto Marlies, confidently hired Keefe to coach the Marlies. As mentioned earlier, the results came immediately, with Keefe leading Toronto to an AHL-best record of 54-16-5-1 and an appearance in the league’s conference finals.
Of more interest to the Maple Leafs, however, is the constant pipeline of NHL-quality players being developed by Keefe and the Marlies. Some of the big names include William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Brendan Leipsic (now with the Vancouver Canucks), and Kasperi Kapanen, and the list is getting longer and longer every season.
Keefe has also bolstered his league-wide reputation by how he’s found his success up to this point.
He is a strong proponent of applying analytics in hockey, and thinks progressively and with an open mind about how to improve both himself as a coach and the teams he leads.
“The biggest change for the Greyhounds was in the style of player which was appealing to Kyle. The way it worked out, it’s become the same type of player I’m attracted to and see value in. So our visions aligned,” says Keefe.
“For us, the value of speed and skill and hockey sense would far outweigh any physical attributes. We wanted people who have the ability to make plays and have speed.
“The foundation is the understanding that when we carried the puck over the blue line offensively, we created more offence,” he says. “Within that, we understood there was a correlation between carrying puck over our own blue line and how it influenced what we could do at the other team’s blue line, so we worked on different schemes and mechanisms to do that.
“After that, it just made sense we had to try and prevent the opposition from doing the same. I’ve enjoyed watching it a lot. It’s been fun to see the whole thing develop.”
Puck possession has become a strong predictor of success in the NHL, and Keefe has been one of the most studious minds when it comes to understanding and applying puck possession techniques out on the ice.
As the sport of hockey grows and evolves, and as the tactical and strategic arms race between NHL coaches perpetually continues, Keefe certainly seems more than capable of learning, adapting, and getting better as he gains more experience. That’s an incredibly appealing thing to consider.
Keefe also has a glowing reputation for building close, supportive, communicative relationships with his players. He deploys both a listening ear and a direct, truthful attitude to connect with members of his teams and get his message across. Getting an entire roster of guys to think on the same page and buy in to a specific game plan is no easy task, but Keefe seems to have a natural ability to make it work.
The Checkered Past
If Keefe becomes an NHL coach in the near future — which seems likely to happen even if it’s not in Dallas — some of the earlier years of his life are guaranteed to be brought up and discussed in greater length. It’s a long history with a lot of twists and turns to unpack and understand.
An abridged version of the story goes something like this: during his days in the OHL, Keefe was a member of a group of four players known as “The Brampton Boys,” named after the Ontario city where they all grew up. The Brampton Boys were notorious in the OHL and beyond, for both their violent and unsportsmanlike play on the ice and a constant series of scandals off of it.
All of the scandals, in one way or another, tied back to a man named David Frost, who was the agent for the four players and had been for years, working relentlessly and using his hockey connections to keep them together across multiple different junior teams. Off-ice rumors involving Frost and the players were rampant, alleging heavy partying, extreme hazing, physical abuse, and, most horrifying of all, sexual exploitation involving teenagers. Many of these alleged incidents were said to have occurred in hotel rooms and cottages paid for by Frost, and involved him being present and directly involved.
The legend of Frost and The Brampton Boys reached an explosive turning point in 2004 when one of the four players, then-NHLer Mike Danton, was arrested for conspiring to commit murder. The target of the murder plot is still disputed, with Danton saying it was his estranged father, while other reports suggest evidence that the intended target was Frost.
Former Defending Big D managing editor Josh Lile wrote an article about Keefe recently over at his new site, Mooterati, where he goes into this topic in greater detail and provides an abundance of additional links.
While the full details of what happened during all those years will probably never be fully unearthed, the more you read, the more two specific conclusions begin to seem likely. One, that Frost was a dangerous, manipulative person who used his authority in the hockey community to control the lives of his teenage players for his own personal gain, and second, that the players involved were, in many instances, themselves victims of Frost. Many of these alleged events occurred when the players were still minors.
This story bears a lot of similarities to that of Theo Fleury’s. Fleury was one of the most notorious players in the NHL during his time in the league from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, and was known for his vicious attitude on the ice and his troubles off of it. It was only fully uncovered later on, however, that Fleury had been sexually abused hundreds of times over the course of many years by a coach named Graham James, starting when Fleury was an underage teenager. James was convicted and served prison time for his crimes. Fleury’s 2009 tell-all book, Playing With Fire, paints a clear picture of how his life began to go off the rails because of the abuse he suffered.
Another alleged victim of James, Greg Gilhooly, has spoken candidly about how James’ abuse directly led him down a dark life path.
Coming back to Keefe specifically, he was never implicated in any crimes, and says he has since cut Frost out of his life completely.
From a 2013 Gare Joyce article titled “A Chance at Redemption: Sheldon Keefe”:
When was the last time you had any contact with David Frost? Keefe doesn’t have a good answer to that. He’ll estimate that it’s five years, but he can’t point to a specific time or an incident, something you’d expect when two men who were close go their separate ways. He chooses his words carefully, drip-filters all emotion from his voice. “I don’t know exactly when but I can say that he didn’t come to my wedding and doesn’t know my wife. He has never met my kids. If he called me it wouldn’t be welcomed.”
Watch or read interviews with Keefe and he comes off as a man who has undergone a lot of self-reflection, someone who regrets what happened in his past and is making a concerted effort to make amends going forward. Many people close to Keefe, including Dubas, have vouched that that is who Keefe truly is at this point in his life.
Also from the 2015 article by Cox:
When they did win that OHL title, Keefe famously refused to shake the hand of league commissioner David Branch.
“This must burn your ass,” he sneered at Branch. It’s one of many things from that time he regrets.
“I’ve had the great fortune to shake David Branch’s hand a number of times since I’ve been back in OHL, something I’m very grateful for,” says Keefe. “If we were able to win the OHL again, I’d be certain go out of my way to shake his hand.”
“I don’t take a lot of time to reflect, just keep pressing on,” Keefe says. “But there are times when I stop, think what I’ve gone through, think about what I’ve overcome, and been grateful for opportunities people kept giving me despite all the baggage I carried with me that would have prevented most people putting themselves out.
“Much of my motivation on a daily basis is to prove those people right.”
A Bright Future?
At this point, it seems that it’s a matter of when, not if, Keefe becomes an NHL coach. And when he does, it will be a major milestone in a rapid and stunning ascension, both in a professional way and, seemingly, in a personal way as well.
He’s undoubtedly young for a coach, and a lack of NHL experience is always something to take into consideration. However, if Keefe can continue along his current path of sustained success, he could hold the potential to become, one day, one of the better coaches in the league.
Whether that milestone happens in Dallas will certainly be something worthwhile for GM Nill and the rest of the Stars organization to contemplate.