If you’re a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, it’s pretty easy to – after dealing with the stubborn sullenness of Mike Babcock – to think Sheldon Keefe is a walk in the park. Perhaps he’s what’s known as a players’ coach.
In December 2019, a short while after Babcock was fired and Keefe was named as the new head coach of the Maple Leafs, Rosie DiManno wrote a thoughtful piece on Keefe where she noted:
“Young, articulate, a breath of fresh air that immediately dispelled the heaviness which had enveloped the team, as if the players had been caught in a trough of low barometric pressure, the kind that makes the head throb and the nerve endings zap. Infused with a passion for hockey, for coaching, for positivity over haranguing negativity. The psychic uplift was instant.” (from “Hockey’s moment of reckoning is personal for Sheldon Keefe. A survivor of abuse, he opts to lead with positivity, empathy, Rosie DiManno, The Star, 22/12/19).
In that moment, which lasted from the end of November 2019 until NHL hockey was suspended on March 12, 2020, the players responded positively to Keefe, who was more like his players in age, make-up, and character than he was like his coaching predecessor Babcock.
The Maple Leafs Players Responded to Keefe
Immediately, the team played “with enthusiasm, rebooted conviction, and reignited moxie.” As DiManno noted, they had “fun.” The struggles of October and much of November were behind them as players. Keefe set them free on the ice and, perhaps, psychologically. Again, as DiManno said it so well, Babcock and the players “wore on each other.” Babcock pushed his players to grind; but, instead, he “ground on them.”
Instead of grinding, Keefe has encouraged his team to fly offensively and to become a slick, creative, puck-controlling team. That’s the team that Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has worked so hard to build but that Babcock seemed to grind to dust before he left.
John Tortorella Offers Another Side of Keefe
What might John Tortorella know about Keefe as a player that might tell Maple Leafs fans more about him as a coach? Yesterday, the 62-year-old Tortorella said about the 39-year-old Keefe.
Tortorella noted, “I have a tremendous amount of respect for (Keefe). He’s one of the most competitive players I’ve coached. I didn’t coach him a lot of games. But when he played, he knew one way, and that was to play hard.”
In the yin and yang of it all, Keefe also had good things to say about Tortorella: “Seeing how he put all that together to eventually build it to a champion is something that, frankly, has really been the foundation of my coaching.”
But, here’s the interesting thing to me. Tortorella named Keefe as “one of the most competitive players I’ve coached.” Perhaps it’s in contrast to how Babcock conducted himself, but it’s easy to miss that aspect of Keefe’s personality. One would believe that, if he were driven as a player, he’d also driven as a coach.
Assuming he has a long career with the Maple Leafs, it will be interesting to see how that plays out.
Where Are Dubas and Keefe Trying to Take This Team?
Keefe has now spent seven seasons coaching on Dubas’ teams. He explains that there are two parts of the team’s orientation that he’s working to build. Keefe noted, “There’s the on-ice side and the off-ice side.’’
“Off the ice, first of all, we’re trying to put together a program that celebrates the positives in people. Also, pinpointing and working on the areas where we need to grow. While staying positive and showing us at our best, still being realistic about where we need to go and what we’re capable of.”
Keefe also noted, “Then, on the ice, reflecting that in a style of play that fits the group and the talent level that we have, and a structure that will help us put players in positions to succeed. Then also trying to plug the holes, if you will, defensively that have held the team back, in my opinion.’’
The Boy Genius and the Professor
Not all Maple Leafs fans will agree either philosophically or tactically with the vision of a team that Dubas and Keefe are trying to create. In DiManno’s December article, she refers to Dubas as the “Boy Genius” and notes that Keefe has been called “The Professor,” even when he played junior hockey because he’s always thought the game.
Keefe seems to be, as a coach, a blend of driven-ness and open-ness. About the game of hockey, he isn’t as detail-oriented as Babcock was. Keefe believes details are important because they help a team win, but he’s not hung up on details because, as he notes about hockey,
“there’s a high level of randomness that happens in this sport. The game is very unpredictable and very dynamic. You need to have dynamic thinkers. So there has to be a certain level of freedom and trust that the players are going to be able to adjust on the fly.”
In that light, he notes that, if a coach takes “away some of those freedoms,” you also “take away the skills that got these players here. That’s an important piece of what we’re trying to do: allow the players to make decisions on the ice and give them guidance to create frameworks in the decision-making process on the ice. But recognizing that things happen really fast. We have to trust that they’re going to do the right things.”
Is Keefe a Players’ Coach?
So, does that make Keefe a players’ coach? As Keefe notes, “I really believe there are substantial changes that have been made in terms of how coaches deal with players … I’ve gone outside of hockey to develop these skills, to learn how to deal with people, manage people. Since I started to coach professionally, I’ve put a priority on positivity, a priority on empathy, a priority on the well-being of players and staff.”
As the pressure of playoff hockey engulfs the team, it will be interesting to see how Keefe reacts to the “grind” as a coach. How will he balance the driven-ness Tortorella believes Keefe has in spades and the openness Keefe suggests he needs to have if he’s going to allow his players to respond to the randomness of the game of hockey?
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