TORONTO – Sometimes the strongest relationships are the ones where both sides are free to butt heads and speak freely, no holds barred, no tiptoeing around feelings or judgments. Like the necessary muscle pain after a gruelling workout, it’s the type of temporary, screaming pain that leads to long-term gain.
And it’s the type of connection, one that only builds with time and trust, Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe seeks to establish with those above and below him on the organizational chart.
"Working with Sheldon in the Soo and in Toronto, he and I would have some blowups in the coaches’ room at each other after [games]," Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas told an auditorium full of aspiring sports-management professionals at a Western University conference earlier this year. "It was fine between he and I because you get to a point in a working relationship where — you might have this with a co-worker — you can get into a massive blowup and you’re trying to help with whatever you’re doing at the time."
In a recent interview, on another drizzly and dreary Toronto off-day between Rounds 2 and 3 of his Marlies’ latest remarkable AHL playoff run, Keefe refuses to detail those heated post-loss arguments he’d engage with his boss in those years leading up to that glorious night last June, when they quenched a mutual thirst for winning and drank from the same championship trophy.
But Keefe does admit that surrounding himself with no-men, be it Dubas or his own staff of assistants, has made him a smarter coach and a better communicator.
"When you have people around you that push back, that’s because they’re telling you what they think. If everything is great and rosy and you get along wonderfully, probably one party is holding back something. It’s human nature that people are going to have conflict, that they’re going to think about things differently and approach things differently," Keefe said in an interview Monday, after running his group through a taxing, 65-minute-long practice.
"It’s so healthy and necessary to have those relationships. You don’t want [the arguments] to escalate, but you want enough depth and understanding in a relationship that you know the next morning, or even the next hour, you’ll be thinking a lot clearer, or you can understand where people are coming from.
"It helps you make more informed and better decisions."
Coaching is a million tiny decisions — Who’s taking the next shift? Do I use my challenge now? How hard should I push them at practice? — intervened by the occasional whopper.
If not this summer then soon, Keefe — arguably the most-salivated-over big-league prospect of the whistle-and-necktie set — will have to decide when to graduate to the next phase of his career and join a National Hockey League bench.
"I just love what I’m doing, and I’m fully focused and engaged in that. But, you know, not unlike the players that are here, I want to be part of the highest level as well. I know that everything I do every day is about making this team better. It’s also about making myself better," Keefe said.
"For when anybody in the business decides you’re worthy of an opportunity, you have to be as prepared as possible. So, I focus on what I can control and try to be the best coach I can."
Like Raptors superstar Kwahi Leonard, Keefe’s best escalates come playoff time, and this spring we’re seeing a man halfway through painting what could be a masterpiece.
The 2017-18 Marlies, with their over-ripe stars (Garret Sparks, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Travis Dermott) and juicy payroll, were supposed to be a Calder Cup favourite. They just stretched their excellence to the finish line.
The 2018-19 Marlies are a different story. They lost their top two goalies to waivers before the season even began. They suffered multiple injuries to good players and had already graduated their best ones to the Leafs. Of the eight Eastern Conference playoff clubs, they finished sixth and lost nearly as many games as they’d won (39-24-9-4).
They aren’t supposed to here, playing mid-May hockey, sweeping both of their series despite not having home-ice advantage in either, and out-scoring their opponents 27-11 while being the most defensively tight and least-penalized among the AHL’s final four. Theirs, not unlike the man pushing their buttons, is a tale of growth, of adapting as you go.
"I love this team that we have this season. It’s just done so much and developed so much from where it was at the start of the season to be playing in the final four," Keefe said.
"There would probably have been a total of zero people who would’ve predicted that—myself included—back before Christmas."
No matter the roster or the level, the 38-year-old coach has never failed to qualify for the post-season. He’s also never failed to win at least one round with any club he’s coached from the beginning of camp. Keefe’s Marlies are a sparkling 22-5 since the start of the 2018 post-season. Of his 11 post-season series since graduating to the AHL in 2015-16, Keefe’s groups have swept five of them.
"He understands that you have to be creative, so he lets us be creative. That’s fun," defence prospect Timothy Liljegren says. "But he can be hard on you, too. You have to push every day. It’s a good environment for young guys to be in."
Highly touted defenceman Rasmus Sandin describes Keefe as easy to talk to.
"He’ll give me advice during games and after games as well. If I do something wrong, he’ll come and tell me, and he knows I can do better," Sandin says. "Our relationship is good."
Keefe says he’s learned how critical communication with your players is for coaches. That hit home during his first run in Toronto, and he devoted the following summer to reading books on the topic, speaking with coaches from other sports, and attending conferences. Having stopped playing pro himself in ’04, Keefe needed to improve his own tools to get through to the young athlete, so he studied other professionals.
"Quite frankly, I try to do as little of that as possible within the hockey realm because I feel like you’re so entrenched in that, that in order to really grow, you’ve got to look at different experiences and streams of information," Keefe said.
"You can never assume players understand your message or understand what you’re thinking. You have to make them understand. Spend time with them. Explain your perspective. Learning how vital that is and having those relationships with players individually—that is the biggest challenge in coaching today, managing that day to day. I don’t do it perfectly, but it’s something I try to think about as often as I can."
Recent history dictates that steering one AHL team to a championship all but guarantees an NHL promotion. Of the last 10 Calder Cup winners, all but two have been granted a crack at NHL employment: Hershey’s Mark French (2010), who got paid to run a KHL bench before joining the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen, and Keefe.
It’s a group that includes a few assistants (Bob Woods, Don Nachbaur, Mike Stothers, Todd Nelson) and head coaches given good runway at the highest level (Jeff Blashill, Willie Desjardins, Jon Cooper, Jared Bednar). None of them waited many years after one Calder Cup to start chasing a Stanley.
"It’s inevitable," Sparks told us this time last year of Keefe’s NHL ascent.
With Leafs coach Mike Babcock’s assistants Jim Hiller and D.J. Smith being permitted to interview elsewhere, we ask Keefe if he’d settle for an assistant’s job if it meant getting his foot in the door.
"I really enjoy what I’m doing in terms of being a head coach," said Keefe.
He’s appreciative of the close connection the Marlies have with the Leafs, being only a cab ride away. The sense, certainly, is that he’d rather bide his time and eventually run his own bench.
"I think I’m on a good path. I’m happy with the path that I’m on and the experiences I’ve gained, mainly because of the little taste I’ve gotten of the NHL, from being part of four NHL training camps and the working relationship I have with Mike Babcock and his coaching staff there.
"It is the best league in the world, and you want to be a part of that. I don’t look at it like I’m in any sort of rush to leave here.
"I like the path that I’m on as a head coach."
He’s not the only one.