keefe fitzgerald

On Tuesday afternoon, the Devils introduced Sheldon Keefe as the 22nd head coach in team history at a press conference at Prudential Center. But what led to that exciting day was a long, extensive and arduous process by general manager Tom Fitzgerald to find the right man for the job. In the end, Fitzgerald got his man in Keefe.

“Tom ran a very detailed and terrific process here for our next head coach,” said Managing Partner David Blitzer. “We met a number of superb candidates. But after spending time with Sheldon and (wife) Jackie, it is clear that he is the right person for this job.”

Below is a look at how the process unfolded that led to Keefe’s recruitment and acceptance of the job.

Sheldon Keefe Introductory Press Conference Content

The Process

Tom Fitzgerald made a commitment to himself during his search for a new head coach. Well, two commitments really. One, he wouldn’t rush the process. Even as other teams were conducting interviews and even hiring coaches, Fitzgerald didn’t want to be forced into a decision. Second, he wanted to do his due diligence. Meaning even the interviewing process would be intensive to the point where he jokingly called it “the gauntlet.”

Fitzgerald began interviews immediately at the conclusion of the regular season. But he also wanted to wait to make a final decision until after the end of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs to see which other coaches may become available.

“I spent a lot of time with a lot of great candidates. One thing I was consistent with was waiting and being patient in the process,” Fitzgerald said. “Letting the first round see through and see what would possibly shake out. I stuck with that. I wasn’t going to budge from that. I wasn’t going to stop waiting just to hire somebody.”

Fitzgerald opened with an exhaustive list of potential candidates. That list was then parsed down to roughly 8-10 names which were interviewed. Fitzgerald spoke to veteran coaches as well as some up-and-coming coaching talent.

“I’m a pretty curious person. There were a lot of guys that I spoke to that I knew weren’t ready for the job,” Fitzgerald said, “but curiosity put them in front of me, knowing that some of them that I talked to will be NHL coaches down the road. That’s interesting to me to get a chance to talk to this young person. Lots of experienced people. I think patience helped waiting for the first round and how it shook out.”

Amanda Stein sits down with Sheldon Keefe

The Recruitment

The coaching search wasn’t Fitzgerald’s alone. He worked closely in collaboration with managing partners David Blitzer and Josh Harris, CEO of HBSE Tad Brown and his own hockey operations staff.

During the opening round of the playoffs, Blitzer was watching the Toronto Maple Leafs face the Boston Bruins. And he got to thinking. So, he called Fitzgerald with a late-night question.

“Do you think there’s any shot that Sheldon Keefe might be available?” Blitzer inquired.

“I have absolutely no idea, but he is on my speed dial in case it becomes a possibility,” was Fitzgerald’s response.

When word got out that Keefe was being relieved of his duties in Toronto, Fitzgerald started putting in the legwork. He started by connecting with Maple Leafs general manager Brad Treliving to ask for permission to interview Keefe. Permission granted.

Fitzgerald then asked Treliving reach out to Keefe and see if he was willing to accept Fitzgerald’s phone call.

In the meantime, Fitzgerald began working his cohorts around the league that were familiar with Keefe.

“I was doing my due diligence, calling people who knew Sheldon,” Fitzgerald said. “Just about his personality. What are all the positive things people saw in him as a coach.”

After all those calls, Fitzgerald was left with one thought: “I hope he accepts my call.”

Keefe, fresh off a Game 7 defeat to Boston and losing his job, did accept the call. But was hesitant to really speed ahead further as he was still processing the end of his time in Toronto.

“To lose in the playoffs is itself difficult. To lose in Game 7 is even more difficult,” Keefe said. “Then not long after that you lose your job. There’s a lot happening at once and you’re trying to process it all. You have term left on your contract. All these things are factors in what comes next.”

Fitzgerald approached it with a “soft” recruitment. He didn’t force the issue. But that initial phone call did lead to a follow-up second phone call. That second phone call led to a third phone call, which entailed a three-hour long conversation between the two men.

The marathon conversation delved deep into hockey from philosophy to strategy to coaching and everything in between. And for Fitzgerald, that was the turning point.

“I call it the ‘hockey talk.’ It was just hockey,” Fitzgerald said. “I realized we’d be fortunate enough to have him as our coach because there are areas that we’re tapping into now that he’s very experienced in that can help us utilize those resources and maximize our talent here and our players. I thought this is the perfect guy for us.”

After that call, Fitzgerald let Keefe know that the decision would now be his.

“I left it in his court with his family, knowing that if he wanted this job, this job was his,” Fitzgerald said. “I totally understand where he was in this process. I knew this was a family decision.”

“Tom was extremely patient, which I’m incredibly grateful for,” Keefe said. “He gave me time to process things and have conversations with my family. With each day that past and each conversation we had it just felt right for lots of reasons.”

After speaking with his family, Keefe was ready for the next phase. It was time for the final phase of the gauntlet.

Keefe and Fitzgerald share a vision

The Close

Fitzgerald was sold. He made his recommendation to HBSE’s managing partners David Blitzer and Josh Harris and CEO Tad Brown. Fitzgerald wanted Keefe. Now it was time for them to interview the coaching candidate.

Keefe and his family were flown to New Jersey for the meeting. Keefe was especially impressed by Blitzer.

“To hear (Blitzer) speak with such passion for Devils hockey, for sports in general, it was incredibly exciting to know that you’d have the resources necessary,” Keefe said.

As the day-long meeting endured, the pieces kept fitting.

“I wanted to jump right back into it and take on this responsibility,” Keefe said. “I will not take it lightly for a second. But also, for the privilege to coach the New Jersey Devils and the incredible talent we have here.”

Keefe returned home following the day for a final family deliberation. The next day, last Tuesday, he sent a text message to Fitzgerald. He accepted the job.

“I don’t usually celebrate on a Tuesday night. I celebrated that night,” Fitzgerald joked.

A week later, Fitzgerald is once again celebrating on a Tuesday. This time, at an introductory press conference of Keefe as the club’s new head coach.

“This is a great day for the New jersey Devils,” he smiled. “It’s a good day for me knowing that this day was coming to be able to announce Sheldon Keefe as our next head coach.”

The media ask questions during the press conference