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Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe bingeing his own team during NHL pause

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TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe doesn't have Netflix and hasn't seen "Tiger King."

In fact, when the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs heard about the cringe-inducing-but-can't-look-away series, he assumed it was a documentary about Tiger Woods. 

"I don't know if I'm proud or embarrassed," Keefe said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters. "But it seems like a rabbit hole of entertainment that I don't necessarily need to go down."

He's instead immersing himself in something different, and more familiar, during the NHL's unprecedented shutdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic — his own team.

"I'm doing a lot of bingeing on the Toronto Maple Leafs," Keefe said. "It's taking up a lot of my time."

That includes examining why a talent-filled roster with the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander can go from apparent world beaters to a team beaten by a 42-year-old emergency backup goalie/Zamboni driver.

Keefe talked earlier this season about the Leafs' periods of immaturity, while general manager Kyle Dubas likened the group to "Jekyll and Hyde" following performances that ran a gamut of highlight-reel to horror show.

"We've shown at times that we can play very well against the best teams in the league and get great results," Keefe said Tuesday. "It's a matter of us finding that more consistently. You can attach whatever description you want to it, but the reality is that we need to take steps, both as a team and individually."

The 39-year-old Keefe, who has been more or less attached at the hip with Dubas since their Ontario Hockey League days, took over for the fired Mike Babcock on Nov. 20 after four-plus seasons leading the AHL's Toronto Marlies.

The Leafs caught fire following the change behind the bench, going 15-4-1 out of the gate, but came back to earth and were just 12-11-4 over their next 27 games before the NHL suspended the 2019-20 campaign March 12.

Toronto sat third in the Atlantic Division when the pause hit — the Florida Panthers being unable to get their act together provided a boost — but Keefe is using this time away from the rink to focus on what needs to change whenever the games return.

"Right now is a chance for us to reset," he said. "But also really identify where we want to grow, how we're going to get there."

With that in mind, Keefe is staying in touch with his players as much as possible, while also taking into account the world-upside-down uncertainty of the novel coronavirus outbreak that's killed thousands worldwide, battered the economy and brought about an era of self-isolation and social distancing.

Known for his communication skills, it's presented Keefe with a unique challenge.

"You don't have the face-to-face contact where you're able to sit across from someone and really talk them through something," he said. "But like everybody, we're adapting to the situation. We're trying to find the balance as a coaching staff of giving the players space to deal with the things that they need to deal with."

That's included text messages and phone calls, while the coaches have kept up a normal routine, albeit remotely, with the knowledge the season may or may not resume.

"As this moves ahead, you're really by the day adjusting your plan a little bit," Keefe said. "While it seems like maybe nothing is happening, there is a lot happening because there's a lot of emotions and a lot of different things that are attached to the situation we're all in.

"We want to make sure that we're going about it appropriately."

And while players might have difficulty making gains physically away from team facilities and off their skates, between the ears is where Keefe thinks there could be a bump.

"The conditions are challenging ... yet it is an opportunity where there's time to focus on certain things," he said. "The messaging that we've been giving to our players and to our staff is that there's no excuse. We should come back as better versions of ourselves. Maybe in lots of cases, that's going to be difficult to do from a physical standpoint, but there's things that we can do in other areas that maybe frankly are more important for our group.

"This pause that we're going through right now gives us a chance to really talk about those types of things and make those sorts of adjustments to make those plans. We're looking to take advantage of it."

On a personal level, Keefe has enjoyed spending extra time with his wife and two sons. He's been doing the home-schooling thing — "My Grade 4 math skills are improving daily" — and his trying his best stay active.

There's also been an opportunity to gain some perspective on the world.

"When it really comes down to it, sports is pretty low on the priority list," Keefe said. "So many things are more important — family and health.

"But then you also do recognize that a lot (people) enjoy their sports and the role sports do play in their lives. So it also makes you recognize and know what you're doing is important and that people miss it."

In his down time there's been movies like "Ford v Ferrari" and the Fred Rogers biopic "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood."

"There's lots of things out there to keep people occupied," Keefe said.

But at least for now, "Tiger King" isn't on the coach's list.

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2020.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press




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