Why Sheldon Keefe decided to return to coaching right away

New Jersey Devils head coach Sheldon Keefe reflects on his tenure as Toronto Maple Leafs bench boss and discusses the good and bad that came with coaching in the Toronto market and expresses his gratitude to the Maple Leafs and its fanbase.

Sheldon Keefe said he was losing sleep as he had a pretty good sense he was about to be fired as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Keefe was let go on May 9, less than a week after the Leafs were eliminated in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins during the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Although Keefe had compiled a 212-97-40 record during the regular season in his five-year tenure, the Leafs had won just a single playoff series compared to five defeats.

The 43-year-old from Brampton, Ont., wanted to bring some immediate closure to his time in Toronto and that’s what spurned him on to releasing a thank you video to Leafs Nation.

“I didn’t sleep much that night, I was up around 3 a.m. and rolling around in bed and knew I wanted to bring some closure to the situation and had the idea of having a video like that,” Keefe said while addressing the media Tuesday as the new coach of the New Jersey Devils. “I just thought it was an easy way, I didn’t want to spend much time going through media or anything like that but I wanted to be able to share a message to the fans and to everyone that I’ve been a part of.

“I spent a lot of years in Toronto as the coach of the (AHL) Marlies and the Leafs and worked with some incredible people and wanted to be able to control my message and get it out there, had the idea of utilizing social media to do so, had that spot picked out, which is not far from where we live. It’s my happy place to go down there by the water, spend some time and clear my head. I went directly from my meeting with (Leafs GM) Brad Treliving that morning to go down and shoot the video and get my message out.”

He wasn’t out of a job for long. Right after recording the video, Keefe was out for lunch with his wife, Jackie, when he received a phone call from Treliving informing him that Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald wanted to chat.

New Jersey fired head coach Lindy Ruff on March 4. Assistant coach Travis Green took over for the remainder of the regular season on an interim basis before accepting a full-time head coaching position with the Ottawa Senators.

Fitzgerald referred to his search for finding a new head coach as “the gauntlet” that included conversations with about eight to 10 candidates. Part of his process was remaining patient and waiting to see how the first round would shake out before making a final call.

“I wasn’t going to budge from that,” Fitzgerald said. “I wasn’t going to move off of waiting to just hire somebody. There were great candidates, great qualities, but when the Toronto Maple Leafs lost out, immediately I called Brad Treliving, GM of the Leafs, and asked if it was possible to have permission to talk to Sheldon. I asked him to call Sheldon and ask Sheldon if he would accept my phone call. I’m grateful he did.”

That conversation led to a couple more, including one that stretched for three hours as they discussed hockey, philosophies and things Keefe believes in as a coach. Fitzgerald ultimately left the decision in Keefe’s hands if he wanted the job.

“It was something I took time with, not a lot of time clearly, but Tom was extremely patient, which I’m incredibly grateful for because he gave me time to process things, to have conversations with my family,” Keefe said. “With each day that passed, and with each conversation I had, it just felt right with New Jersey.”

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Keefe said meeting with team owner David Blitzer in New Jersey and hearing him talk about his passion for Devils hockey and sports in general was at the top of the list for reasons to accept the role.

“That was incredibly exciting to know that you would have that support and resources necessary,” Keefe said. “Then also just how aligned Tom and I were. With each conversation, with each day, it became more and more exciting and more real that I was wanting to jump back into it and take on this responsibility that I will not take lightly for a second but also the privilege to coach the New Jersey Devils and work with the incredible talent we have here.”

Keefe checked a lot of boxes Fitzgerald was looking for and passed the final test of “the gauntlet” after meeting with the managing partners.

“I was very upfront to everybody at the year-end meeting, someone who would keep players accountable, not just top players, all players, staff members,” Fitzgerald said. “Somebody that (will) collaborate with the resources that we have here thanks to David Blitzer and (co-owner) Josh Harris, and make sure we utilize that for making proper decisions whether it’s with lineup, style of play, personnel. Communication was the final one. Someone who can communicate well, clear, understanding. Someone with a presence in that locker room. Someone who can speak every language there is from trainers, equipment managers, managing partners.

“The one thing that I learned when I was going through this process, it was evident that Sheldon checked all of these boxes, was how innovated he was and where he is at in the process of utilizing a lot of these resources. I walked away and I said to my staff he’s going to teach us a lot because of the experiences that he’s had.”

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The Devils are looking to bounce back with a core group featuring Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier plus siblings Jack and Luke Hughes. Keefe is excited for the fresh start — or to turn a new leaf, if you will — with New Jersey.

“The major parallel that I’m focused on is that this is a good team with really good players, great resources and high expectations,” Keefe said. “I’ve never coached a game at any level of any team where I didn’t expect to win every single time we put our gear on and went out to play. That was really important to me, so that parallel is important, but this is a fresh start and a great opportunity ahead.

“It’s completely unique and different from anything I’ve experienced previously. I don’t think any one thing is ever the same. In fact I don’t think any one day is ever the same when you’re in this job. That’s what’s exciting about it is every day you come is an opportunity to get better and learn something. This with a fresh group of players and to be able to create new relationships with the incredible young talent that we have is very exciting.”

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