OTTAWA – They held aloft homemade, Magic Markered signs that cheered “Always a Lumber King!” and “Thank You Sheldon!” And they were but a few of the Toronto Maple Leafs fans who dominated Canadian Tire Centre with an overwhelming blue majority.
But this select group didn’t have to drive four hours east on the 401 to attend this Battle of Ontario. Nah. An easy 80-minute cruise down the 417 from Pembroke, Ont., would do the trick.
For they didn’t flock to Kanata — at least primarily — to root for Auston Matthews, who kept pace with David Pastrnak in the Rocket race with his 42nd of the year. Nor did they come to see William Nylander tie his father Michael’s career high in goals (26).
They came — 40 of them, giddy in suites — to watch their host, Sheldon Keefe, coach. (In a suit lined with Pembroke Lumber Kings logos, no less.)
When the rookie bench boss holds the memento puck from this 4-2 win, marked with the date Feb. 15, 2020, he’ll think fondly of those faces who had faith in him when he was just one of dozens of ex-pros trying to hang around. To carve a second life in the sport he’d always loved, but not always in the right way.
By first bringing a Canadian Junior Hockey League championship to Pembroke in 2007 and then using it a springboard to the OHL, the AHL and eventually here, to the bigs, Keefe was moved by gratitude’s gravity in a game, in a place, that gave his career a “full circle” feel.
He paid back and thought back to his roots. For once, it was not all about the two points.
“Just a chance to see many of the people that were important in supporting me and my family through our time in Pembroke and the operation of the Lumber Kings. To have them in the building and have a chance to thank them each in person was important to me,” Keefe explained.
“Anytime when I think about the chance for me to coach in the NHL, right away I would think, ‘How can I thank those people?’ I can never say or do anything to really repay them for everything they sacrificed to give me a start and a foundation to be able to coach at that level. But having them in the building was special, and I was happy that it worked out.”
During his years in Pembroke, as Keefe pushed through that difficult transition from freewheeling player at the top to finding his niche in a second career in a small town, he’d frequently drive down here, to the Canadian Tire Centre, to watch hockey.
To maybe dream of getting back not only to barns this size, but this very barn itself.
“In particular, I was drawn to the times when the Leafs were in town,” Keefe said. “But also I coached in this building in the OHL, I coached in this building in the AHL with the Marlies, I coached my first time ever on an NHL bench in this building in an NHL exhibition game.
“It all started for me in Pembroke and in working with the Lumber Kings there. The number of volunteers and supporters that we had, sponsors, fans, all these things that allowed that organization to support me in my endeavour to try to be a coach and start a new life.
“If I ever had a chance to coach in the NHL, I wanted to make sure I could go out of my way to acknowledge them.”
Jason Spezza, whose playing career overlapped with that of his new coach, spoke with Keefe prior to puck drop about their mutual ties to this neck of the woods.
Spezza said the Maple Leafs would try to win this one for guy behind the bench.
Then they did, wire to wire, with Keefe sending the former Senator out for puck drop in the town that drafted Spezza second overall.
A sense of occasion, of history. A personal touch.
These things resonate in a Maple Leafs room that believes in their chances to not only make the playoffs but contend, likely more than you or I do.
In defeating the Senators Saturday, Keefe’s Leafs improved to 22-10-4 since the coaching change, despite a parade of personnel to injured reserve and an overdue correction to the backup goalie situation.
Were it not for their skittish start under Mike Babcock, Toronto would be humming along at a 109-point pace.
“There’s lots of positive things. Obviously, our play has been better under him. He’s very smart [with] in-game changes, in staying calm,” said Jake Muzzin, who mercifully snapped a 35-game goal drought.
“But when we need a stern talking to, it’s also there — and you feel it. It’s authentic. It’s real. I enjoy having him as a head coach, for sure.”
Seldom does Keefe put himself out there. Most of his focus is on those ever-fluid lines, on implementing his possession-first system, on motivating a relatively inexperienced group, on balancing rest and the whip.
Muzzin, for instance, had no clue about those 40 people dear to his coach that joined in the “Go! Leafs! Go!” chants and helped propel The Wave that ripped ’round Canadian Tire Center in this home-away-from-home game.
But when he found out, he was happy.
“That’s good we got the win for them,” Muzzin said.
There is a lesson Keefe gleaned from his takes-a-village rebirth in Pembroke that he’d like to pass on to his players as they scramble out of their self-dug hole and through this wild winter of adversity.
“Something I’d like to instill into the players is to not focus on proving anybody wrong,” Keefe said. “But just focus on proving the people right that believe in the you, whether it’s people within our organization or our fans.”