He wasn’t in Pembroke, but Sheldon Keefe was close enough to the Ottawa Valley city to thank the people who helped him on his road to redemption. On Saturday, February 15th his Toronto Maple Leafs were in Ottawa to play the Senators and Keefe used the opportunity to bus 40 people to the game who were associated with the Pembroke Lumber Kings during his tenure as the team’s owner. The kind gesture included a lot of special treatment, including a great view from two private suites and a personal visit by Keefe before the puck drop.
He told reporters after the visit, “Tonight was special-I got a chance to thank them in person for believing in me.” When Keefe came to Pembroke he arrived as a promising National Hockey League player with a damaged reputation from his playing days in the Ontario Hockey League. He bought the Lumber Kings, admitting he had never heard of or been to Pembroke in his life when he put $175,000 on the table to purchase one of the most storied franchises in Canadian junior hockey.
When his career came to an abrupt end because of a catastrophic knee injury while under contract with the Phoenix Coyotes, Keefe made the decision to make a life for himself and his new family in Pembroke and take over behind the bench. By that point, he had been at the centre of a fire storm because of his past affiliations with controversial player agent David Frost and his childhood friend Mike Danton who had been accused and convicted in a murder for hire plot. He needed to break away from his troubled past and start over in Pembroke.
It wouldn’t be easy. In an interview with Mike Zeisberger of NHL.com leading up the Leafs game in Ottawa, he said, “They could have squashed me. Instead they gave me a second chance in life. I’ll never forget.”
Keefe didn’t forget. Knowing it would be his first trip to Ottawa as coach of the Leafs, he reached out to organize a special night for people who were on his staff with the Lumber Kings, who billeted his players, who were major sponsors for the team or who always supported him. He knew he couldn’t bring them all to the game, but he also knew by hosting some of them it would be his way of saying thank you to not only the lucky few who were on the guest list, but to the entire city of Pembroke and those loyal to the Lumber Kings hockey club.
At the first sell out of the season for the Senators, there were a lot of blue and white jerseys in the crowd of more than 18,000 people. The game had a playoff atmosphere, and sprinkled throughout those jerseys were some red and white Lumber Kings sweaters and signs that match Keefe’s Twitter handle, “Always a Lumber King.” Recognizing that many of the Lumber Kings fans who cheered his teams to five consecutive Central Canada Hockey League titles and a national junior A championship in 2011 would be at the game, Keefe also showed off a very special suit. The inside was lined with the logos of the Lumber Kings, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and Toronto Maple Leafs, the pathway that has been his coaching journey.
There are few stories like Sheldon Keefe’s journey. Not many people would have been able to re-build their reputation the way he has and he knows that if Pembroke had not given him an opportunity to have a fresh start and try coaching, none of what has happened in his hockey career would have been possible.
His team delivered a 4-2 win over the Senators on this special night in Ottawa. The Lumber Kings fans who were at the game or watching on TV weren’t surprised. They collectively said, “Everywhere he goes, Sheldon wins!”