Francis Dupuis called it the greatest pre-game speech he had ever heard. It left half the team in tears and “motived the Hell out of us,” said Dupuis as he looked back on the greatest moment of his junior hockey career.
It was Mother’s Day, May 8, 2011 and the Pembroke Lumber Kings, led by their youthful head coach Sheldon Keefe, were facing off against the two-time defending national champions, the Vernon Vipers. The British Columbia hockey champs had gone undefeated in the RBC Cup round robin tournament, while the Kings had managed only one win in their four games. That made the Kings the underdog, but they had already pulled off one upset by dumping the hometown Camrose Kodiaks in the semi-finals, the night before the championship game. By Sunday morning, the Kings were within one win of making history and that’s when Keefe worked his magic.
Over his five years at the helm of the Lumber Kings, Keefe had learned how to push the right buttons at the right time. He knew that his Lumber Kings had an opportunity to do something that had never been done before. Despite years of close calls, both the Junior and the former Senior Lumber Kings had never been able to win a national championship for the proud city that calls itself Hockey Town Canada. Keefe was intent on washing all of those bad memories away. This time, Pembroke would capture a national title.
It was Dupuis who would be one of the heroes. He had been solid between the pipes all season long for the Kings who had won their fifth consecutive league championship under Keefe, but on this day, he had the game of his life. Dupuis made 40 saves, and Jonathan Milley scored twice, his second goal into an empty net, to give the Lumber Kings a 2-0 win. It was Milley’s birthday and his penchant for scoring big goals was on display in front of a national television audience on TSN. A few days later the players and Keefe would be the toast of Pembroke, honoured with a parade and civic celebration in the parking lot of the Pembroke Memorial Centre.
Winning a national championship may have done more for Keefe’s future as a hockey coach than anything he has done since, but his Pembroke experience is really what changed his life. Owning the Lumber Kings required him to build trust with the community. He needed to escape the storm that had been brewing around him for so many years and he did it, one person at a time. He changed people’s perception of what they had read about his past and asked them to give him a chance. Looking back at that transformational time in his life, Keefe now says that in Pembroke, “for the first time it was about more than hockey.”
There was no question that he was the best coach available at the Junior A level after his Lumber Kings won the national championship, but the phone still wasn’t ringing. Hockey is a close-knit fraternity and memories of his playing days in the Ontario Hockey League and his affiliation with controversial player agent, David Frost, continued to linger. Keefe had cut ties with Frost years earlier but he knew that he had left the OHL with a damaged reputation. He needed someone to believe in him and finally, a year-and-a-half after the magic of Camrose, the phone did ring.
A young general manager in Sault Ste. Marie who was desperate to turn his team around offered Keefe the opportunity that had alluded him. Kyle Dubas had done his homework. He called around to learn more about Keefe’s tenure in Pembroke. The reports were glowing and the statistical record stood for itself. Dubas was prepared to bet the house on Keefe and as it turned out he had played his cards well. That hiring set in motion a very quick progression for Keefe to coach in the epi-centre of Canada’s hockey world.
Keefe turned the Greyhounds around. He was named Ontario Hockey League and Canadian Hockey League coach of the year. He was no longer an outsider in the OHL. Now, people were universally willing to give him a second chance and Keefe no longer had to second guess himself. He knew he could coach players at a higher level.
When Dubas was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as an assistant general manager he brought Keefe to Toronto to coach the team’s top farm club, the Marlies. Within a few years, Keefe would lead the Marlies to their first Calder Cup title, the trophy awarded to the top team in the American Hockey league. He was grooming future stars for the Maple Leafs, and it wouldn’t be long before Dubas was tapping him on the shoulder again.
When Dubas was elevated to the general manager’s role for the Leafs it was widely expected that Keefe would get his chance. It happened in November of 2019 when the Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock and promoted Keefe to the role. Eight-and-a-half years after he raised the RBC Cup over his head in Alberta, Sheldon Keefe had reached the pinnacle of coaching in the National Hockey League.
Keefe has now coached more than 1,000 games at all levels of hockey. He has had remarkable success wherever he has gone, but It all started in Pembroke where he built relationships that have kept him connected to the city as his career has progressed. The community is proud of his accomplishments and it is fitting that on the tenth anniversary of the Kings winning their only Canadian Junior A Hockey title, Keefe is being recognized by Algonquin College’s Pembroke Campus with an Honorary Degree.
As owner of the Lumber Kings, Keefe donated to the building campaign for the Pembroke Waterfront Campus that opened in his final year of coaching the Kings. He also contributed to a bursary for students in financial need. He encouraged his players to pursue post-secondary education and five of his players who were on the Kings national championship roster studied at the Pembroke Campus. The group included team captain, Ben Reinhardt, who stands alone in the Central Canada Hockey league as the only player to win five league championships.
Keefe says the recognition is “unexpected but very appreciated,” adding, “Algonquin College is among the pillars of Pembroke. To acknowledge me in this way and associate me with the College and education is very special. I will be eternally grateful,” says Keefe.
The Degree will be awarded at the College’s June 23rd virtual convocation ceremony. It’s another reminder that Sheldon Keefe will forever be tied to the city of Pembroke. He already owns a key to the city bestowed on him by the Mayor and city council after he guided the city’s historic hockey club to national prominence. Now, he will have a Degree. Forever, he will be a Lumber King.