It’s late afternoon, three hours before what Sheldon Keefe hopes will be the first game of the rest of his life, and it only feels like the thermostat has been turned up in the lobby of his hotel out by Ambassador Bridge. The day hasn’t gone smoothly. The bus was held up by customs crossing over into Michigan, every piece of baggage inspected, everyone questioned, search dogs sniffing every inch, everything short of strip searches. A trip that should have taken five hours lasted seven. His team is grabbing an abbreviated game-day nap. There’s nothing he can do until game time. Tonight will be his first time behind the bench of a team that represents his second and possibly last chance at something big. He has never seen that team play live, just in practice and on video. For a coach taking over a team in trouble, that’s like a doctor trying to assess the condition of a patient in emergency over the phone.
A player’s mother recognizes him and comes over to introduce herself. “Just want to wish you luck,” she says, and he can smile, but when she walks away his lips go thin again. His eyes track a line in the distance but aren’t focused on anything except this game against the Spitfires in Windsor. “A lot of people think I don’t deserve a chance and want me to fail,” he says. “I’m just asking them to give me a chance.”
Keefe is not an anonymous neophyte. He is one of the most widely known names among players whose NHL careers lasted only 125 NHL games. He’s hardly known for anything on the ice and almost entirely for his association with one of the most scandalous names in hockey, the former coach and agent David Frost. When Mike Danton (born Mike Jefferson) was charged and convicted of conspiring to kill Frost, Keefe was the guy most noticeable in the background. He had grown up with Danton in Brampton, Ont., played with him right through to major junior. Keefe and Danton had shared Frost as their coach and agent. They had lived with him. And when Danton was in prison in the U.S. in 2008, it was left to Keefe to testify on behalf of Frost, who was facing charges of sexual exploitation of minors that dated back to their time in a seedy hotel room in Deseronto, Ont.
This is not the recommended career path if you’re looking to become a coach.
Those who follow the junior game remember Keefe as a player good enough to rack up 121 points in an OHL season and end up a second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999. They also remember him as the captain of the OHL champion Barrie Colts and for his refusal to shake the hand of CHL commissioner Dave Branch at the trophy presentation. (Branch did not respond to interview requests.) “This must burn your ass,” Keefe told Branch, whom Frost had declared their mortal enemy.
This is not the recommended career path if you’re looking to become a CHL coach.
That was then, Keefe will tell you with a straight face. “I made mistakes when I was a teenager, but I’ve changed,” he says. “I’m a husband now. I’m a father. I love to coach. I didn’t find out that it’s what I wanted to do until after my [playing] career was over.”
The 32-year-old Keefe knows that he has walked into a tough situation taking the job as coach of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, and it has nothing to do with his baggage. He hasn’t worked in the league since he played in it. He has had a ticket to an OHL game only a handful of times since. The team has some talented kids—drafted players and prospects for upcoming drafts—but is life or death to make the playoffs, and has grown too used to losing. The Greyhounds have image problems as well, with charges of sexual assault laid against three players, including leading scorer Nick Cousins.
The Soo’s hiring of twentysomething whiz kid Kyle Dubas as GM last year was the product of unconventional thinking. Dubas’s firing of Mike Stapleton and hiring of Keefe weren’t out of the box so much as in your face. It shocked and angered. “People in the league office hit the roof on this one,” says an OHL executive. “Dubas is making a lot of enemies of people who worry about our image.”
Dubas does not fear overstatement in defending his choice. “Sheldon has been the best coach not working in this league for a couple of years now,” he says. “No one can deny the job he did in Pembroke.”
If the name at the top of his CV were redacted, Keefe’s body of work would grab anyone’s attention: five consecutive league championships as coach of the Pembroke Lumber Kings, a storied Jr. A franchise that he bought seven years ago. It reached the national stage when they became Canadian champs in 2011 after winning the RBC Cup.
Pembroke gave Keefe an opportunity to develop a hard-driving coaching style—“a 10 on the intensity scale,” says current Lumber King Ben Dalpe. It was also an escape, a place where he could stay out of the spotlight and decompress. Said one coach who worked with him in the pro ranks: “Sheldon was the guy in the room you couldn’t reach. He just stayed distant. He didn’t enjoy playing the game the way he should have. I’m sure Frost had something to do with that.”
Keefe says the assessment is fair. “My career lasted five years but it felt like 15. When I tore my knee up [in 2004], I didn’t have a great feeling about the game. That changed in Pembroke. People there had concerns and I understood them, just like people [in the Soo] have now. Pembroke’s small enough that I could win their trust one by one.”
The idea that he wanted to coach in the CHL crystallized in Pembroke. Others with less-stellar records in
Jr. A were getting opportunities, but he wasn’t ready to send out resumés. “I never had a job interview in my life,” he says. “I had to learn all that.”
Keefe applied to Hockey Canada for jobs in the Jr. A Challenge and the Jr. A prospects game, the most prestigious events for teenage players off the major junior axis. It didn’t make headlines, but it caught the attention of people in the game. It’s one thing to coach a team you own, another to wade into a high-profile organization and a gauntlet of interviews with executives and background checks. According to a Hockey Canada source, president Bob Nicholson ultimately signed off on Keefe. His best reference, however, comes from Greg Walters, the Georgetown Jr. A coach who selected Keefe as an assistant with the Canada East squad last winter: “I would send my son to play for him in Pembroke without hesitation.”
Before Dubas made the call to Pembroke, Keefe had talked to only one CHL club about coaching, a team in Quebec. “It was a good conversation, but we realized that language was always going to be an issue,” Keefe says. The only issue in the Soo figures to be image. Walters, for one, thinks it’s unfair. “Sheldon was just a kid when this happened. He was a victim [of circumstances to be associated with Frost],” he says.
People don’t ask what happened anymore, Keefe says. They’ve heard or read about it or just don’t want to know. His players might be in that last demographic. “Nothing,” defenceman Ryan Sproul says when asked what he knows of his new coach’s ties with David Frost.
One question will always be asked by parents of players recruited by the Soo: 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.”
Sheldon Keefe is standing in the centre of the visiting dressing room in Windsor. “We’re going to get pressure,” he says. “We’re going to force turnovers.” It’s a change in strategy: The Soo had played a soft 1-2-2 all season, but the new coach was sending two forwards after every puck in the Spitfires’ end. It’s also, more importantly, a change in tone. Keefe isn’t yelling, but every word is hammer to nail; no asking, not even demanding, just telling how it is going to be. If things go sideways, the yelling will commence. And it’s going to.
The Greyhounds run out to a 2–0 lead over the Spitfires, and Keefe’s plan is working, his team awarded for pressure with scoring chances. But the Greyhounds fade, the pressure on the ice peters out and the visitors lose 3–2. They look like a team that still needs to learn how to win.
Keefe doesn’t wait until the end of the game to call out players on the bench. He’s in their ears and faces. By the end of the weekend, his team will have one win, two losses and a score of bruised feelings. A top player will sit there stunned after a game when Keefe gives his performance a grade of one out of five. Keefe will let them know, constantly, that he knows the games that coach killers play because he played them himself. He’s not going to be a victim.
There are always going to be questions, but with this chance, Keefe is only interested in answers.