What Maple Leafs' Sheldon Keefe learned from shadowing Pete Carroll

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe holds a practice during training camp in Toronto. (Chris Young/CP)

"The essence of my message about competing has nothing to do with the opponent. My competitive approach is that 'it’s all about us.' If we’ve really done the preparation to elevate ourselves to our full potential, it shouldn’t matter whom we’re playing." — Pete Carroll, Super Bowl champion

TORONTO – Always compete.

That motto — passed down personally from Pete Carroll to Sheldon Keefe — resonates with the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach. Those two words guide Keefe as he prepares to embark on his first “full” season at the helm of a roster whose compete level is a constant source of scrutiny.

Always compete.

A basic philosophy on the surface, but one that encompasses an entire mindset that can anchor athletes, coaches and managers in the arenas of sport and life.

“The simplicity is beautiful, but there's a lot inside of that,” Keefe explained Sunday, during a Leafs’ virtual open house attended by more than 1,900 coaches of all levels.

“The way Pete Carroll defines it, always competing is essentially not about competing against other people, but really competing with yourself and really challenging and pushing yourself to always be learning, always be evolving, always be seeking to improve and get better.”

Forever striving to reach your potential — which is something these Maple Leafs have yet to do, regardless of the cast behind the bench.

Keefe is all juiced up with anticipation and ideas these days.

The NHL, lacking a training camp start date and a schedule, may be stuck in purgatory, devoid of momentum and shaded by worry. But an enthused Keefe, 40, is steadily clocking workdays at Ford Performance Centre, then booking ice to work with his own hockey-loving sons, Landon and Wyatt, savouring family time before things get nuts.

Now a full calendar year on the job, with a tidy 27-15-5 regular-season record to show for it, Keefe is far from the new guy in the organization.

Save assistant Dave Hakstol, GM Kyle Dubas and Keefe overhauled the latter’s direct support staff, luring assistants Manny Malhotra and Paul MacLean from the competition and installing Sam Kim as the club’s new video coach. (Keefe is a huge learn-by-video guy.)

The Leafs forward and defence personnel have also been shuffled significantly, with a keen eye to escalate internal competition for the coach’s ice time. Fiery characters like Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds should wield influence.

All those fresh faces and potential line combinations fuel Keefe’s own passion to compete, to avenge his five-game bubble ouster at the hand of one of his own coaching inspirations, Columbus’s John Tortorella.

“For myself personally, it's a fresh start with a fresh training camp. Fresh team, if you will, because there are significant changes and a chance to really get to work with what I'd like our team to be about, to win,” Keefe said.

“The pressure is truly a privilege. When there's pressure, that means there's great opportunity — and you're a part of something that people care about.”

As he sketches out a blueprint to make the monolithic Maple Leafs great again, Keefe cherishes and draws from the August of 2019, when he was invited to observe the monster that is Seattle Seahawks training camp, to watch Carroll up close in action.

Keefe saw how a vibrant, organized Carroll coordinated a staff of 28 coaches, in turn tasked with corralling, developing and evaluating 92 hopeful players. In the midst of that operation, Keefe was granted two 45-minute, one-on-one conversations in Carroll’s office on consecutive days. He soaked up the lessons like a sponge.

“I was very, very fortunate for that and learned a lot through it,” Keefe said. “I've always wanted to be able to spend time with an NFL team, in particular, just because I think the dynamics around an NFL team are so fascinating.”

How to manage and motivate such a volume of staff and athletes. How to tap into individual inspiration and funneling that into the good of the group. It’s a cumbersome challenge, and one Keefe embraces.

Motivation, the coach acknowledges, is a funny thing. It vanishes and accelerates. It can be wildly contagious or frustratingly fleeting.

Keefe prefers inspiration.

“We try to really tap into what inspires the players. What's their inspiration? What is their passion? Why is it that they've committed their life, essentially, to be hockey players?” said Keefe, digging philosophical.

“You know, there's a lot of really gifted people that are playing in the NHL, of course, but these guys have put in a great deal of work to be where they're at. In order to do that, you're not doing it on the back of motivation. You're truly inspired by something. It's important, as a coach, to learn what that is and tap into that.”

Beyond the skills development, battle drills and video debriefs, Keefe will be searching for reasons why the next opponent is of importance: How does tonight’s game relate to the standings? What happened last time they crossed paths? Are we trying to snuff out their streak? Build on our own?

“You’re constantly looking for ways to connect the day to some story,” Keefe said. “It's about finding the right recipe and the right delivery to keep it fresh.”

So that might mean a shootout contest to end practice. It might entail breaking from systems work, cranking up the music at FPC, and hosting a skills development day. Or pitting the defence and forwards against each other in high-octane battle drills.

For some players, it will mean leaning on a teammate to act as messenger for the coach’s directive. For others, it’ll be a post-game text, to give the player something to think about before bed. Some Leafs want the bad news straight; others prefer their criticism couched in praise.

Solve the individual, and you can milk more from the group.

“A lot of our job as coaches and as facilitators of development is to keep that light on,” Keefe said. “Keep the fire burning.”

To always compete.

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