When Sheldon Keefe made the decision to step behind the bench of the Pembroke Lumber Kings, he was a young man with an uncertain future. He had bought the Lumber Kings in 2003 , expecting to have a long NHL career and to maybe some day get more involved in the day to day operations of the junior hockey team he had purchased. That plan changed when he suffered a serious knee injury in training camp with the Arizona Coyotes, an injury that was bad enough to end his playing career.
He tested coaching in the 2005-06 season, joining the Lumber Kings as an assistant coach. He liked it and when the off season arrived he decided he wanted to give the head coaching role a chance, not knowing if he would be any good at coaching. He was. All he did in Pembroke was win.
He strung together an incredible record of 265 wins, 76 losses and 20 ties, becoming the fastest coach to win 200 games in Central Canada Hockey League history. He won five consecutive championships, another league record, and he capped it by bringing Pembroke its first national junior A championship when his Lumber Kings won the RBC Cup in the spring of 2011.
Despite all of that winning, the phone wasn’t ringing. Keefe was considered damaged goods, a label attached to his association with controversial player agent David Frost and some poor choices during his junior hockey career. He admits he made plenty of mistakes like snubbing OHL Commissioner, David Branch, during a pre-game ceremony at the 1998 Memorial Cup in Halifax where he refused to shake hands with the OHL’s top official.
Hockey people can have long memories, and so Keefe had to change his image. By taking it one day at a time and building positive relationships with people in Pembroke, he gradually changed opinions. He supported local fundraising campaigns, was named young entrepreneur of the year by the Upper Ottawa Valley Chamber of Commerce and he made sure his players were part of the community.
At practices and during games, he was tough on his players. He was a disciplinarian, not afraid to bench his top players to make a point. He was all in, spending an incredible amount of hours reviewing video and working hard to become a better coach and ultimately a better person. The performance of his teams was impossible to ignore and finally he got the break he deserved when a call came from Sault Ste. Marie where a desperate young General Manager, Kyle Dubas, needed a new coach to turn his floundering OHL franchise around.
After taking over in mid-season in 2012-13, Keefe got the Hounds to the playoffs. The following season the Hounds won the West Division and in his final year in the Soo, the Greyhounds finished with their best record in franchise history. Keefe was named the Canadian Hockey League coach of the year, an award presented by David Branch, who spoke highly of all that Keefe had accomplished as a coach in the junior ranks. The hatchet had been buried.
By that point, Dubas had been lured to Toronto as an assistant General Manager to Lou Lamoriello. One of the first moves made by Dubas was to hire Keefe to coach the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League. When he arrived in Ontario’s capital city, Keefe kept winning. Over four seasons with the Leafs farm team, Keefe compiled a record of 199-89-31, culminating with a 2018 Calder Cup championship.
There was interest from other NHL teams, but Keefe remained loyal to Dubas staying with the Marlies, continuing to pay his dues and wait for his turn. On Wednesday, November 20, 2019, the Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock. The man who was groomed to be his replacement was hired to take over the bench of one of the NHL’s most storied franchises. Sheldon Keefe had finally made it to the top.
At historic Pembroke Memorial Centre, a banner celebrating Keefe’s accomplishments with the Lumber Kings hangs from the rafters. It’s a reminder that his journey to redemption had started in Pembroke. HIs time had arrived.