Marlies’ Keefe making most of first year in pro coaching

Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe. (Photo: Sportsnet)

TORONTO — The Toronto Marlies practice is over, but the work never stops. On the ice at the MasterCard Centre, where the team shares a training facility with its parent club, the Toronto Maple Leafs, a handful of players remain after the final whistle, working on their shots, doing drills to sharpen up their hands. On a neighbouring pad, former champion figure skater Barbara Underhill is working with a couple of the AHL team’s players on stride mechanics and edge work, the hockey player’s version of an aspiring pianist practising scales: boring but necessary.

Another group of players are working with one of the Marlies’ player-development coaches on protecting the puck in the corners and escaping unscathed to create an opportunity.

Supervising is Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe, who, on this subject—distancing yourself from trouble; identifying new opportunities—would qualify as an expert.

Ten years ago, as his playing days were winding down, a career developing young hockey players didn’t look like a great bet. Having spent most of his hockey life—from childhood minor hockey right through the professional ranks—directly or indirectly under the thumb of David Frost, Keefe seemed destined for the game’s margins, if there was a place for him at all. His association with Frost—a former coach and agent, now a pariah—had landed Keefe in or near some of the most controversial and disturbing moments the game has seen at any level: lurid tales of sex, violence and running hard against hockey’s mainstream.

But hockey was what Keefe knew best and loved most, and during the past decade, he has carved a place for himself in the game by doing just what his players are working on under his watchful eye: Being honest about what’s limiting them and tireless about correcting it.

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Keefe, 35, is in his first year coaching in professional hockey and making it look easy, just as he has at every step of his coaching career so far. It’s been a rapid rise that has included seven years in Junior A with the Pembroke Lumber Kings; two and a half seasons with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the Ontario Hockey League; and his June appointment to the AHL’s Marlies, charged with grooming the generation of future Leafs that will be counted on to turn around the sagging fortunes of the parent club.

He’s doing a hell of a job. As the all-star break approached, the Marlies had a winning percentage of .800—best in the league—and an almost unheard-of plus-71 goal differential through 45 games.

But wherever Keefe coaches, winning happens. His winning percentage in Pembroke? A tidy .800, again, to go with five straight league titles in his first five years and a national championship in 2011.

At the Soo? He took over a .500 club at the midpoint of the 2012–13 season and had them go 23-12-1-3 in the second half. His .720 winning percentage in 175 games with the Greyhounds is the best in franchise history.

That track record earned him a job with the Marlies, in large part thanks to the recommendation of Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas, who was the general manager of the Greyhounds when he tapped Keefe to take over on the bench.

When Keefe played—five professional seasons and 125 NHL games before a career-ending knee injury—his nickname was “The Professor” because he could outthink everyone else on the ice. And in interviews, he’s too smart to take credit for the Marlies success.

“The team on paper looked really good,” Keefe says after finishing up on the ice, the music from the dressing room coming faintly through the wall of his unadorned office at the MCC. “I had limited knowledge of the league and the players and all of that, but people with experience in the league told me we were going to be good and competitive.”

Even though his team has been as good as or better than initially advertised, he’s hardly sitting back and watching in his new role. “I don’t look at the standings every day, but I do look at video, and there’s a pile of things we can do better, so I focus my attention on that,” he says.

Dubas has been impressed by Keefe’s ability to find ways for players to improve individually in a team context and in an environment where everyone is watching—the Marlies’ proximity to the big club means Leafs executives such as Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan regularly show up for practices and games. “In pro sports, athletes go to great lengths to protect themselves against their weaknesses—they don’t want to show them, they don’t want to embrace them and work on them. When they [protect themselves], what I’ve observed is it limits their potential,” says Dubas. “We need an environment where players are comfortable confronting their weaknesses and expected to work on them.”

Which is why Keefe is on the ice well after practice at the MCC. His day started with him taking part in organizational meetings with the Leafs, who expect him to teach Mike Babcock’s system to the Marlies, using the same language and points of emphasis, so that when Marlies players are called up, they can integrate seamlessly. Now he’s watching his players work on what they’re not good at, coordinating with the development coaches to ensure that skills taught in drills are those that can be transferred to competition.

“The development staff relies on the coaching staff to give direction on how certain skills can be applied to what we’re trying to do, and more importantly what the Leafs are trying to do,” Keefe says. “I think that gives the players the idea we’re doing things for a purpose. At the same time, I try not to be around too much, because when the coaches are around, the players are really switched on mentally and trying to figure out, ‘OK, what is the coach watching for here?’ Sometimes, I just want them to focus on the skill.”

The idea is that if their coach is always watching, the Marlies won’t be comfortable showing their weaknesses and thus might miss out on improving them.

The reality is there may be no one in hockey who better understands the benefits of acknowledging what could be holding you back as a way to move forward.