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When Sheldon Keefe writes a book about his coaching experiences, the 2019-20 season could be the most bizarre chapter.
A year that started behind the Toronto Marlies bench segued into promotion to the Maple Leafs, with a honeymoon win streak, wild swings in team fortunes, significant injuries, losing to a goalie who was called out of the crowd and a tense playoff race that was halted along with everything else by COVID-19.
“It certainly has been eventful,” Keefe agreed Tuesday afternoon on a conference call with Toronto media, three weeks after the NHL shuttered. “My own journey has been so unique and so exciting on so many levels, but going through what we are now isn’t exciting for anybody. As we look back on it, we’ll remember (the pandemic) more than anything. That’s where the perspective should be.
“When it comes down to it, sports is pretty low on the priority list. So many things are more important, family and health are the most essential thing.”
Keefe, his wife and two young sons have stayed in Toronto, as he monitors on-line learning and homework during the day and reviews the Leafs’ season at night.
“Our family, we’ve gone through the same emotions and similar experiences as everyone else. I’ve tried to take advantage. I’ve really enjoyed that. Even in the off-season, you’re still busy, you always seem to be on the run. Conditions being what they are now, I’ve learned a lot. We’re going through everything together.
“As a coach, you want to continue to work and be prepared as possible for what might be coming.”
That has included a lot of video review of the 70 games to date, keeping tabs on some players via text and going through possible schedule scenarios with general manager Kyle Dubas and his assistant coaches for whenever play resumes.
“The obvious challenge is the distance, you don’t have the face-to-face contact, to talk to players, to show them something. But we’re like everybody, we’re adapting.
“It’s business as usual in the sense we have projects we’re working on every day. We have a responsibility. Our season is not complete and we have to take advantage to be better versions of ourselves.”
A March 10 win over Tampa Bay in their last game to date salvaged playoff positioning after a three-game California calamity brought some harsh words from Keefe. But he didn’t like leaving the wrong impression after using the term “immature”.
“A distinction should be made, we didn’t necessarily say our team was immature: We played immature. Two different things. We’ve shown at times we can play very well against the best teams in the league and get great results. (Now) we really want to identify how we want to grow, how we want to get there.”
Keefe had just got defenceman and alternate captain Morgan Rielly back in the lineup from a broken foot when play stopped and winger Ilya Mikheyev was due to be activated March 19 from wrist surgery.
Keefe also had a role in convincing new Russian winger Alex Barabanov to sign a one-year deal with the Leafs this week. A career KHLer, the 25-year-old will need lots of help acclimatizing to North America, albeit in the 2020-21 season.
“We think he’s has great experience and skill set, he ticks a lot of the boxes,” Keefe said. “He’s a player you fully expect to step in and be a big part of your team.”
Keefe would not get into the hypotheticals on how long a training camp NHLers would need to be ready for a spring/summer conclusion to the ‘19-20 season. Some coaches have guessed a few days, others insisted up to two weeks is a must.
Through the NHL Coaches Association grapevine, Keefe has been able to get some ideas what colleagues have been working on and how they’ll tackle what could be a mad summer dash, with the end of one season quite possibly rolling into the other.
“The NHL and the NHLPA will decide that and whatever they give us (for prep time), we’ll use it to the best of our ability.”
FINALLY GIVING TV A TRY
When the coach goes to the couch, he’s a little out of touch with the entertainment world.
Family duties and Maple Leafs business leave Sheldon Keefe little time for TV shows, the favourite pursuit of so many others in these stay-at-home times.
“I’m binging a lot on the Leafs,” laughed Keefe when asked what shows he’s watching. “I don’t even have a Netflix account. I don’t know if I’m proud or embarrassed about that fact. It seems like a rabbit hole I don’t necessarily need to get down. When I first heard about Tiger King, I thought it was going to be a documentary of Tiger Woods, which I thought would be terrific to catch.”
He has watched movies such as Ford Vs. Ferrari and A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, but prefers to maximize family time with board games and walks.
“It’s such a great time time and opportunity for people to work together by spending time with those most important to them. I working on my home schooling. My Grade 4 math skills are improving greatly.
“But you do recognize a lot of messages and calls from friends and people around who enjoy sports and the role sports play in their lives. It makes you realize people miss it.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020