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Keefe bringing friends who helped shape his career to Maple Leafs game

Coach welcoming residents from town that turned hockey life around to Ottawa

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

PEMBROKE, Ontario -- Sheldon Keefe has not been able to make it back to this town, which is about 75 miles west of Ottawa, since he became the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

So he's bringing part of Pembroke to him on Saturday.

Keeffe, who at age 39 replaced Mike Babcock as Maple Leafs coach on Nov. 20, has arranged for a bus to bring about 30 people from Pembroke to Ottawa. Once there they will sit in a pair of suites arranged by Keefe for the Maple Leafs' road game against the Ottawa Senators at Candian Tire Centre (7 p.m. ET; CBC, SNO, SNW, SNP, NHL.TV).

Before the game, Keefe will make his way up and reunite with so many familiar faces from his past. There will be handshakes and hugs, tears and laughter, all wrapped in a special moment Keefe has been looking forward to for months.

"You have to understand that I'm not here because of me," Keefe said this week, his voice cracking with emotion. "I'm here as an NHL coach because of a lot of those people, the people who were around me in Pembroke and who gave me a second chance. For a new career. For a new life.

"I'll never forget them because of the friendships and relationships we have. Never have. Never will. It was life-changing."

Keefe is reminded of that almost every day when he looks at the red Pembroke Lumber Kings hat that's on a shelf behind his desk.

The Lumber Kings are one of 12 teams in the Central Canada Hockey League, a Junior A level circuit in Eastern Ontario in which players range from ages 16-20. Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux and retired NHL forward Patrick Sharp, who played from 2002-18 with the Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars, are alumni of that league.

Keefe purchased the Lumber Kings for $175,000 in 2003. He was a 23-year-old forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning and was seeking an investment.

"I was a young guy looking for team to get involved in," he said. "You're a young guy, you're making your money, you feel invincible. I'd never been to Pembroke. That league was foreign to me. Did some research, found that it had a rich history; It wasn't your typical Jr. A Program."

Nor was Keefe your typical team owner.

He was a young player with a reputation for losing his cool. As a high-scoring forward with Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League, he became infamous for refusing to shake the hand of Canadian Hockey League commissioner David Branch at the 2000 Memorial Cup.

His ties to a couple of controversial people also tarnished his image.

One was with agent David Frost, who was acquitted in 2008 on four counts of sexual exploitation dating back to 1996-97 when he was coaching a junior team in Deseronto, Ontario, where Keefe and pal Mike Danton, played. Danton was convicted of plotting to kill Frost, his then-agent, in a murder-for-hire scheme, on Nov. 8, 2004 while playing for the St. Louis Blues.

Danton and Keefe grew up near each other in Brampton, 10 miles northwest of Toronto. Frost began coaching them as part of a summer league team when they were kids. By the time the boys were 16, they were playing for the Frost-coached Quinte Hawks. Keefe and two other teammates were living with Frost in a Deseronto hotel room at the time.

Keefe stayed in touch with Frost, who helped broker the purchase of the Lumber Kings in 2003.

That relationship made the people of Pembroke wary of his intentions.

Vowing to reboot his life, he cut ties with Frost and Danton and concentrated on making the Lumber Kings winners.

He did just that.

A knee injury sustained during the 2004-05 season with Utah, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes, caused him to retire as a player. In 2006 he decided to coach the Lumber Kings and led them to five consecutive league titles, culminating with the 2011 Royal Bank Cup as national champions.

He left the Lumber Kings to coach Sault St. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League in December 2012. The general manager who hired him: Kyle Dubas, now the GM of the Maple Leafs. Five months later Keefe sold the team in order to put all his focus on his pro coaching career.

"None of this success and my climb through the coaching ranks happens without the people of Pembroke," Keefe said. "I needed a clean start. They could have squashed me. Instead they gave me the lifeline to change my life."

He has never forgotten those who supported him when doing the opposite could have easier. He wanted them to share in his experience if he ever became an NHL coach.

That dream will be realized Saturday.

"The game on the ice will be what it is," he said. "But the opportunity to have them in the building and to see them face to face is important to me. Ever since I thought there might be a chance to be an NHL coach, I wanted them to be a part of it."

"Never for a second did I ever separate the fact that without those people I never would have had a chance to be where I am today and who I am today."

***

The last time Keefe was in the Pembroke area was on April 26, 2018.

It was for the funeral of Patrice Wren, a member of the 2011 Pembroke championship team who had been battling mental illness. He was 24 years old.

"I had to be there," Keefe said. "I just had to."

Keefe was coaching Toronto of the AHL at the time. The Marlies held a 2-1 lead against the Utica Comets in their best-of-five Eastern Conference First Round. With a day off between Games 3 and 4, Dubas arranged for a flight from Utica so Keefe could attend the service.

"I can't thank Kyle enough," Keefe said. "I wanted to be there for Patrice's family. And I wanted to be there for my friends who needed my support in such a sad time."

One of those friends was Mary Ann Taman, who had served as the Lumber Kings operations manager during Keefe's tenure as owner.

"I hadn't seen Sheldon in a while," Taman said. "When I walked into the church, I saw him and said: 'I knew you'd be here.'

"That's Sheldon. He cares. Just like we care for him. He's family. Here he was, so busy with the Marlies, and he found a way to be here.

"That's the Shel we know. When we see him on TV, we don't see him as Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs coach. That's just Shel, the guy that used to cook french fries and help us out at the Canteen at Pembroke Memorial Centre."

The Canteen is the snack bar inside the arena where Taman, Keefe's wife, Jackie, and their friend, volunteer Tanya Tompkins, worked seemingly endless hours.

"I couldn't do it while I was coaching the Lumber Kings but during minor hockey tournaments, I would do my part," Keefe said. "I specifically remember doing coaching video at the cash register waiting for the next customer and selling hot chocolate and hockey and fries. Even the players would help out. Because the reality was, that concession stand was a major financial backbone of the team. Everyone had to do their part -- the volunteers, my wife, me. It was important to pay the bills."

It was equally as important to gain the trust of the community, which wasn't easy.

When the Danton story broke in 2004, civic leaders were concerned about potential bad publicity Keefe might be bringing with him. A meeting was arranged with the team's primary sponsor, Dan Bedard of Eastway Contracting, and Johnny Shaw, a prominent local businessman with Shaw Lumber Company.

"I didn't know Sheldon at all," Bedard said. "Pembroke isn't a big place, but hockey is important and vital here. You're either with the people here or you're not. I'd heard a lot of way too much info that was one-sided. But I don't condemn anyone until I hear from them themselves."

Bedard said he and Shaw were ready to force Keefe to sell the team if he didn't convince them of his intentions.

He did.

"He stood up the best I probably had seen anyone stand up," Bedard said. "Never was he rude. He talked about what he believed in and how he wouldn't back down from anyone who might jeopardize what he wanted to do or the life he wanted to live today.

"I'm all for second chances and he ended up doing what he'd said he'd do, including win."

Four years later, Bedard hosted a Canadian wedding reception for Sheldon and Jackie at his home. The couple had been married on June 28, 2008 in Arizona.

"That's how close Dan and Sheldon became after the meeting," Tomkins, Bedard's stepdaughter, said. "Since a lot of Pembroke people couldn't make it to their wedding down south, this was a way to celebrate up here."

Tompkins, who also serves as marketing manager for Eastway Collision, said the Keefes are family.

"Jackie is like my sister," she said. "We all come together to help. Remember, they had a home here. They started a family here. Both their boys were born here.

"I remember when their first son, Landon, was very small, Jackie had to go to hospital -- I think it was some kind of bronchial thing -- and Sheldon had to go on the road to Hawksbury. It was the Lumber King people who took care of Landon. Nancy and Barnie Ward."

"That's why these people are so special," Keefe said. "They were always there for us."

Like he wants to be for them on Saturday

***

It's 10 days before the Maple Leafs-Senators game and a number of Keefe's friends have gathered to watch Toronto take on the New York Rangers on TV at the local East Side Mario's.

The Maple Leafs are losing 5-3 but that's not the focus of the crowd. Keefe is yelling at the officials.

"He's much better with his temper," Tompkins said. "When he was here, he'd be throwing sticks on the ice."

Taman said you can tell when Keefe's anger is boiling over.

"He gets these red rings around his eyes like a mask," she said with a laugh.

That mask was a familiar sight during Keefe's early days behind the bench.

"My first ever game as coach was an exhibition game and I got kicked off the bench for arguing a call," he said. "I remember walking away thinking: 'That was stupid. What are you doing?'"

Keefe did a lot of winning from that day forward. His five consecutive titles are documented by a banner that was presented to him at a ceremony on Oct. 4, 2013. He also was presented with a key to the city, which now sits on a mantel at his Oakville home.

"It's a remarkable story to think how short a time he went from Pembroke to Toronto," said Jamie Bramburger, author of "Go Kings Go! A Century of Pembroke Lumber Kings Hockey.".

"Sheldon knew he had to change the perceptions of who he was. He grew up here. He became a man here.

"I think he knew if he doesn't come to Pembroke, if he doesn't buy the Lumber Kings, if he doesn't make the decision not only to buy the team but also to become the coach and run the day to day operations, he's not in Toronto now."

Fortunately, he is. And this town of 13,882 is embracing that.

Tompkins said, "I was in the Tim Horton's drive-thru when he was named coach of the Leafs, and suddenly people are yelling: Is the game on? Where can we see it?' We're in Senators territory so Leafs games are blacked out sometimes. I think there were a lot of Centre Ice packages sold that day so people could watch him.

"Pembroke loves Sheldon."

And Sheldon loves Pembroke and the Lumber Kings. In fact, he has twice reached out to team owner/coach Alex Armstrong, who bought the team last summer.

"I answer my phone and hear: 'Hi, it's Sheldon Keefe, this is my personal phone number, call any time.' He's even offered to help break down team video for us," Armstrong said. "He's so busy with the NHL yet he still has time to tell me how winning those championships were important, but he started a new life here and that meant more than anything.

"A lot of people might be jealous of a guy like that but how can you be?"

Taman and Tompkins will make the trip Saturday. So, too, will the Wards. Armstrong and the Lumber Kings players will not, however. They will be hosting an outdoor practice in the Pembroke area instead.

"Sheldon used to have them," Armstrong said. "It's a great idea and it worked for him, so why not us."

Another example of how Pembroke and its citizens have not forgotten Sheldon Keefe.

Just like he hasn't forgotten them.

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