TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe thought he had a pretty good understanding of his new world.
The owner/head coach of the Pembroke Lumber Kings — a junior-A hockey team located about 150 kilometres northwest of Ottawa — was winning title after title.
Keefe, a young man trying to chase away the demons that came to define him as a teenager before a knee injury abruptly ended his on-ice aspirations as a pro, was the toast of the town.
He won an unprecedented five straight league championships, culminating with a victory in the 2011 RBC Cup, junior-A’s national crown.
The success helped Keefe get an invite into Hockey Canada’s fold for a couple of events. He started talking to people outside his bubble on a regular basis and came to a quick realization.
“I didn’t know very much,” Keefe, who was also Pembroke’s general manager, recalled thinking. “It opened my eyes to just how much the game changed and evolved. When you’re a former player, it’s natural to just settle on what you knew. I had fallen behind. That’s what happens when you don’t continue to grow and learn.
“The biggest thing for me was realizing, ‘Holy crap I really don’t know that much. I’ve got to get to work.”’
That specific wake-up call — a similar willingness to change that highlights what’s been dubbed by a friend as Keefe’s “new life” following his severing of ties with disgraced coach/agent David Frost — stretched into 2012.
It landed him on the radar of Kyle Dubas when the 20-something-whiz-kid GM of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds was looking for a new coach.
Dubas, whose hockey outlook is shaped by a forward-thinking approach, got his man with Keefe. And after Dubas signed on as assistant GM with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014 at age 28, Keefe was installed behind the bench with the Marlies, the club’s top farm team, some 12 months later.
Having won last year’s Calder Cup and in the midst of another American Hockey League playoff run sparked by back-to-back sweeps to open the 2019 post-season, the 38-year-old is inching ever closer to an NHL job.
It could come this summer or further down the road, but whenever it happens, the seed was planted in Pembroke after a promising playing career — Keefe led the OHL in scoring in 1999-00 with 121 points — ended with just 125 NHL games over five pro seasons.
“I had depth charts of the Pembroke Lumber Kings on my walls in my cottage,” he said. “I started to develop a passion for it in that sense, but it definitely wasn’t something I was thinking about while playing.”
Keefe already owned the Lumber Kings when he blew out his knee in the AHL. He started helping out as an assistant and took over behind the bench in June 2006 at age 25.
That, at least in part, helped fill a void.
“I still had the itch to play,” Keefe said. “But I developed a real passion for coaching and developed some real ties in the community.”
Along the way, however, Keefe had to show people his checkered hockey history was indeed in the past.
Selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 1999 NHL draft, Keefe had a long connection with Frost as his coach and agent, and was a friend and teammate of Mike Danton.
Danton, who was born Mike Jefferson, was convicted of plotting to kill Frost, his then-agent, in a bizarre murder-for-hire scheme in the United States while playing for the St. Louis Blues in 2004. Frost, meanwhile, was acquitted in 2008 on four counts of sexual exploitation dating back to his time coaching a junior team in Deseronto, Ont., where both Keefe and Jefferson played in the mid-1990s.
Keefe was never charged with any crime, but his association with the pair, some headline-grabbing antics in junior and reputation were widely known.
“Making the decision to become a full-time coach and run the operation myself … that was really the moment for me where I would say I had a chance to create a new identity for myself,” said Keefe, now married with two sons. “Everything I did was going to fall on me.”
Jon Hull played against Keefe in junior, but they became close during his one season as an assistant with the Lumber Kings.
“I got to know him kind of at the start of his new life,” said Hull, GM of the USHL’s Lincoln Stars in Nebraska. “I always said to him that if everybody could see the person I know, it’ll be a no-brainer.”
“Everyone has things they wish they hadn’t done,” added Kevin Abrams, who was head coach/GM in Pembroke for a couple of seasons when Keefe first bought the team before becoming the league’s commissioner. “The way he carried himself and the level of professionalism, it was so far removed it wasn’t even an issue.”
Keefe first met Dubas — promoted to the Leafs’ GM job last spring — when the latter was an agent with junior-A clients and came away impressed. He kept an eye on his colleague from afar, jumping at the chance when offered the coaching gig in Sault Ste. Marie.
The willingness to adapt has continued under Dubas.
“Our relationship has grown,” said Keefe, a native of Brampton, Ont. “He really opened my eyes to how much there is to learn and how to look at things a little bit differently.”
Hull said Dubas has impacted the way a lot of people look at hockey — Keefe included.
“His influence on Sheldon has been immense,” Hull said. “If you looked at the way Sheldon’s teams played from the time he was in Pembroke to Sault Ste. Marie to Toronto, he’s changed a lot.”
Hull, who got to know Dubas through Keefe, added the Leafs GM once told him: “Everything is changing, always.”
It’s a perspective Keefe has also come to believe — one that impacts his coaching style game to game and even period to period. That view probably sounds refreshing to Leafs fans, who were left frustrated by head coach Mike Babcock’s stubbornness in the team’s first-round playoff exit.
“You’ve got a structure and a foundation,” Keefe said. “But weekly you’re adding to that or adjusting that, whether it’s to a certain opponent or how things might be fitting with this particular group of players.
“That’s a big thing.”
Keefe, who will lead the Marlies into the AHL’s Eastern Conference final, insists he’s a patient person. But with Babcock halfway through an eight-year contract, it’s possible he might have to look elsewhere for an NHL job.
“I’m in no rush,” Keefe said. “The way I approach this is not unlike the message we give to our players, which is other people in the business determine when you’re ready or when you’re deserving of an opportunity.
“Your job is to work every day to be as ready as possible if or when that call comes.”
Given his success to this point, it’s a call that might come sooner rather than later.