TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe finally got an opportunity to take a breath.
In the whirlwind 96 hours since taking over for the fired Mike Babcock on Wednesday, the newly-minted head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs barely had time to process anything other than what was right in front of him.
Keefe rushed to join the scuffling team — losers of six straight at that point — in Arizona, where he picked up his first win behind an NHL bench the following night against the Coyotes.
Then it was onto Colorado where Toronto jumped out to a early lead against the Avalanche before hanging on for another victory in the thin mountain air.
When the Leafs arrived back home for a day off, Keefe had a chance to reflect on his journey from junior-A to arguably the game’s highest-pressure job in just seven seasons.
“Had a lot of time for those types of things (on Sunday),” the 39-year-old said following his first on-ice session in Toronto with the team Monday. “I also had a chance to connect with a lot of important people in my life that I hadn’t had a chance to get back to.”
A high-scoring, junior-hockey bad boy in the late-1990s, Keefe moved to coaching after his promising career as a player was cut short by a knee injury in the American Hockey League in his mid-20s.
He dominated junior-A as coach/GM/owner of the Pembroke Lumber Kings in eastern Ontario — winning five straight league titles and a national championship — before Kyle Dubas hired him to lead the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds during the 2012-13 season.
And when Dubas was hired as an assistant GM with Toronto, Keefe soon followed to take charge of the AHL Marlies. In four-plus seasons there, he won the Calder Cup in 2018 and made the Eastern Conference final on two other occasions before the Dubas — now the Leafs’ GM — and team president Brendan Shanahan came calling once it became clear Babcock’s message was no longer getting through.
“As a family, we’ve been through a long journey to get to this point,” said Keefe, who had his wife and two sons in Arizona for his first NHL coaching win. “Starting in the city of Pembroke with the Lumber Kings and the opportunity that I had there to learn how to coach and be a part of the community.
“You look back and you’re certainly grateful for all the people that gave you a chance.”
A native of nearby Brampton, Ont., Keefe expected things to be a little overwhelming early, but said the transition has been relatively smooth.
“I’ve been prepared and been able to handle things as they’ve come,” he said. “A lot of the credit goes to the (coaching) staff and the players, just for how welcoming they’ve been, how easy they’ve been to talk to, how supportive they’ve been.
“All those things have helped my cause here and made it a lot easier.”
In his first Toronto media availability in the top job, the 31st coach in franchise history stepped from behind a sliding door in the locker room where eight television cameras and more than twice as many reporters waited.
“A little different being at home,” he joked of the attention after two games and a practice on the road.
Keefe has already put his stamp on a team, insisting the talent-rich roster express itself offensively. That, in turn, should mean less time spent defending.
“He says it how it is and gives us really good direction in how we want to play the next shift, next period, next game,” Leafs captain John Tavares said. “The group’s responded well.”
“He’s really passionate,” added Toronto centre Auston Matthews, whose team continues a six-game road trip Wednesday in Detroit. “He brings a real energy in the locker room. The message he’s trying to get across is for us to just play hockey. We want to lay down the foundation.”
Whereas Babcock wasn’t shy about subtly and sometimes no-to-so-subtly calling out management’s personnel decisions — from the troublesome backup goalie position to the signing of veteran centre Jason Spezza this summer — Keefe and Dubas see the game through the same prism.
At his first practice in Toronto, Keefe had the entire team go through a 20-minute skills session on an adjacent sheet of ice that included a number of the organization’s development staff taking a hands-on approach.
Dubas stood in one corner of the rink recording some of the drills on his phone.
“We’re working on skill, but there’s also structure to what we’re working on,” said the 36-year-old Spezza, who played against Keefe in junior. “It’s team concept stuff, so it’s skill within that framework.”
Keefe is also doing his best to get the Leafs — a group with Stanley Cup aspirations — feeling good about themselves again after falling below the .500 mark and out of the playoff picture at the time of Babcock’s dismissal.
He inserted Denver native Nick Shore into the lineup against Colorado and made sure Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot started in their first game against the Avalanche following the off-season trade that brought the pair to Toronto.
“We want to make it a priority,” Keefe said of working to keep spirits high. “We want to be a team that’s thriving.
“We want an environment that’s vibrant.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2019.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press