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Between diehard Toronto Maple Leafs fans, born-again followers and new supporters, there’s bound to be a lot of televisions in Tignish tuning in to Thursday night's National Hockey League game between the Leafs and the Coyotes in Arizona.
That’s because it will be the first game behind the Leafs’ bench for the team’s new head coach, Sheldon Keefe.
Both of Keefe’s parents, Brian and Bertie (Arsenault) Keefe are from Tignish. They moved to Brampton following high school and raised their family there.
Collectively, they have more than 100 relatives living in the Tignish area. Among them are both of Sheldon Keefe’s grandmothers, Hilda Keefe and Theresa Arsenault, residents of the Tignish Seniors Home.
A lifelong fan of the Montreal Canadiens, something she says she picked up from her mother, Hilda Keefe says she has become a Leafs fan after her grandson became the 31st head coach in the NHL team’s history on Wednesday. He replaces Mike Babcock who was fired after a disappointing start to the 2019-20 season.
Keefe’s teammates in Tampa Bay included Stratford, P.E.I. resident Gordie Dwyer and Murray Harbour’s Brad Richards.
“Sheldon was a highly skilled player but a really intense player,” Dwyer recalls. “He wasn’t the biggest guy out there, but definitely played with a tremendous amount of grit and character and pace to his game.”
He was named the OHL’s rookie of the year in 1999 and set a franchise scoring record with the Barrie Colts the following year with 48 goals and 121 points in 66 games.
Hilda Keefe has closely followed her grandson’s hockey career which included 125 NHL games as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning between 2000 and 2003 and a storied coaching career since 2005.
“Brian (Sheldon’s father) said last night, ‘You better be cheering for Toronto now.’ I got my warning,” she laughs.
Unlike his grandmother, Sheldon’s cousin, Bobbi-Jo LeClair is a longtime Leafs fan and proudly donned a Doug Gilmour jersey as proof. She would have nothing to do with the Bruins jersey her father, Joey, offered her and boldly predicts the Leafs would dispose of the Bruins if the two teams meet in the playoffs this year. She, too, was planning to watch Keefe’s NHL coaching debut and was predicting the Leafs would end a losing skid with a 4-1 victory. She’s been to some of her cousin’s Marlies games while on visits to Toronto and has a cap signed by the Marlies players.
Brian and Bertie Keefe flew to Phoenix on Thursday so that they could be in attendance for their son’s NHL coaching debut. Their younger son, Adam, coaches the Belfast Giants in the UK’s Elite Ice Hockey League.
Sheldon’s aunt, Francine Knox of Skinners Pond, said she was tempted to fly to Phoenix, too, but will take in the game on TV instead. She was part of a delegation who drove to Montreal for Keefe’s first NHL game in Canada with the Lightning in 2000 and had been to the NHL’s draft the previous year when he was chosen by the Lightning 47th overall.
Following three seasons with the Lightning, Keefe was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes but did not get any NHL playing time with that NHL franchise.
Tonight’s game is somewhat of a homecoming for Keefe as his wife, Jackie, is from Arizona and the couple spends part of their summers there. They often spend some summertime in P.E.I. as does his parents.
Sheldon Keefe coached the Pembrooke Lumber Kings to five consecutive Central Canada Hockey League championships and a 2011 Royal Bank Cup championship, amassing a 285-95-12 coaching record along the way.
He coached the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds from 2012- 2015 and was named the Ontario Hockey League’s and the Canadian Hockey League’s coach of the year in 2015.
Keefe joined the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise in June, 2015 when he was named head coach of the Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. He coached the Marlies to their first-ever Calder Cup championship in 2018 and was one win shy of 200 AHL coaching victories when Leafs president Brendan Shanahan named him as the NHL team’s new bench boss.
Besides playing with him, Dwyer also coached against Keefe. Dwyer coached the Summerside Western Capitals and Keefe the Pembrooke Lumber Kings in the 2011 Fred Page Cup, won by the Lumber Kings.
“Obviously, Sheldon is a very driven individual, Dwyer commented. “He was very driven and very focused as a player and made the National Hockey League because of those qualities. I think that those qualities reflect in his ascension as a coach.”