Who is Sheldon Keefe?
In 2014, TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie wrote this profile of new Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe in his book Hockey Confidential. Here it is.
Excerpt from Hockey Confidential ©2014. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
The Road to Redemption
Sheldon Keefe's Quest to Be His Own Man and Put His Checkered Past Behind Him
Sheldon Keefe pondered the question and paused before he answered.
Maybe he was taking stock of them, running through the inventory in his mind, with no shortage to choose from.
Or maybe he hesitated because he's not inclined to look back, determined instead to focus on the here and now, or perhaps a future that seems as bright and promising as his past was, at times, dark and disturbing.
But the head coach of the Soo Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League also knows that, as hard as he runs on the road to redemption, he can't pretend his past never happened, can't deny who he was or what he did. And he knows how all of it, for better or for worse, has shaped the man he's become and still hopes to be.
"I regret a lot of things," he said. "Everything, really. Just around who I was when I played junior hockey, all of that in general—a lot of incidents, how we acted, how we conducted ourselves...the truth is, I lost years of my life, especially how I lived in isolation, so focused on the task. I lost years of my life, I really did."
He knows who to blame for that. "Just myself," he said. "Just me."
This is Sheldon Keefe's story. It is not so much a story of what he was or what he did—a lot of which has already been told—as much as it is a story of who he is and what he's doing now in his quest to be a good son, brother, husband, father, friend and member of the hockey community, working hard, one person at a time, to convince the skeptics and doubters he's worthy of their respect and trust.
This is not David Frost's story.
This is not Mike Danton's—or Mike Jefferson's—story, either. Their stories, to varying degrees, have been told. Countless times.
You're likely familiar with some aspect of a sordid hockey saga that exposed not only the dark, seedy side of the game but the worst of those directly involved with all of it for the better part of a decade beginning in the late 1990s.
Frost is a pariah in the game of hockey: a disgraced minor hockey coach turned disgraced agent turned persona non grata, who gained the trust and conﬁdence of a small cadre of teenage hockey players, only to control their lives like some sinister Svengali. All the while he sidestepped intense media inquisitions, police investigations and a bevy of criminal charges, leaving him with no criminal record, though he didn't fare nearly so well in the court of public opinion. Frost pleaded guilty to assault of one his players in 1997, but was granted a conditional discharge in open court. In 2001—when a photograph surfaced of a half-naked 13-year-old taped to a chair, who subsequently alleged he was abused by Frost when the photo was taken in the summer of 2000—a year-long police investigation failed to result in any criminal charges after multiple witnesses, including Keefe, alleged the boy was lying about the context of the events leading to the photo.
In 2006, Frost was charged with 12 counts of sexual exploitation involving teenage boys and girls in Deseronto, Ontario, during the 1996–97 hockey season when Frost, then a Junior A coach, lived in a motel room with a few players, one of them Keefe. Eight of the 12 charges were later dropped, and in 2009, Frost stood trial on the remaining four counts of sexual exploitation, an offence punishable by up to 10 years in prison. But he was acquitted on all charges. He was also charged with fraud in 2007 for using a credit card belonging to Mike Danton, but was found not guilty after Danton said Frost had permission to use the card. In 2012, Frost self-published his professed own story in e-book form in Frosty: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Going Up the Ranks to the NHL, in which he said: "I am not the devil. I took a handful of long-shot kids and beat the odds. In turn, a few of my players made it to the NHL."
In the years since then—as of the spring of 2014, anyway — Frost had virtually disappeared from the hockey landscape.
Mike Jefferson—or Mike Sage Danton, to which he legally changed his name in 2002 after a stormy and highly publicized estrangement from his family—pleaded guilty in July 2004 to a failed murder-for-hire conspiracy a few months earlier that the FBI said was to have targeted Danton's agent and former coach, Frost. Danton was playing for the NHL's St. Louis Blues at the time of his arrest. Danton was sentenced to seven and a half years in a U.S. federal prison, but was incarcerated for slightly more than ﬁve, transferred to a Canadian prison in the Kingston, Ontario, area in March 2009, was subsequently released and granted full parole in September of the same year.
At his parole hearing, Danton maintained the target of his murder conspiracy was not Frost, but his own father, Steve Jefferson, something Frost had also claimed in the wake of Danton's conviction. After being paroled in 2009, Danton attended and played hockey for two years at St. Mary's University in Halifax. In the years following, up to and including the 2013–14 season, Danton played lower-level European pro hockey in relative obscurity in Austria, Sweden, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Romania and Poland. In 2011, Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons wrote a book entitled The Lost Dream: The Story of Mike
Danton, David Frost and a Broken Canadian Family.
So there you have it, the checkered pasts of David Frost and Mike Danton (né Jefferson) in all their glory, stories the hockey world would just as soon forget.
There's no denying Sheldon's Keefe's story is, in part, inextricably intertwined with Frost and Danton's. It's not possible to tell Keefe's without touching on the others. But of the three, Keefe's story has a ﬁghting chance to become one of hope and promise, not darkness and despair.
Here it is, through his own eyes, then and now (his comments, unless otherwise indicated, are from an interview conducted in March 2014.
Sheldon Keefe was born in 1980, the middle child to father Brian and mother Roberta, hardworking people who settled in Brampton, Ontario, a bedroom community northwest of Toronto. Sheldon's sister, Lisa, was four years older than him; his brother, Adam, four years younger. Brian Keefe was a blue-collar guy who loaded and unloaded trucks at a cold-storage plant, a hard existence he continued to work at into his late 50s. As of 2014, he was still at it. As Sheldon said, "My dad hasn't had many easy days [at work]." His mother worked in child care for many years.
Their existence was unremarkable in the sense that theirs was a normal Canadian family whose lives, more or less, revolved around a love of hockey. When Brian grew up in Prince Edward Island, he never played the game, though he was a good athlete, playing basketball and wrestling. But from a very young age, Sheldon and younger brother Adam were consumed by it.
"Growing up it was hockey, hockey, hockey," Keefe said. "I remember playing on two or three teams in the same winter."
Sheldon played in the local Chinguacousy minor association, one of the better kids, always scoring a lot of goals. Adam was always the best player on his team as he started out.
Sheldon went on to play AAA rep hockey for Chinguacousy in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association, a good player on a poor team—no match, really, for their local rivals, the powerful Brampton team.
One of Keefe's teammates from a young age was Mike Jefferson. The Jeffersons didn't live too far from the Keefes. Brian Keefe and Steve Jefferson became fast friends—drinking buddies, if you will— spending a lot of time at the Jefferson home. Sheldon and Mike also became friends.
"We lived close to each other, my dad and his dad were close. We [Sheldon and Mike] were close at times and grew more [close] because of our fathers," Sheldon said, adding he probably met Jefferson for the ﬁrst time at age seven or eight. "We were very different people, but we hung out a lot."
Between his major atom and minor peewee years, Sheldon wanted to play summer hockey. The core of the Brampton OMHA team was putting a summer squad together, and Keefe, the best player on the Chinguacousy team, was recruited to be on it. So was a coach by the name of Dave Frost.
As Keefe recalled it, Frost was known in Brampton hockey circles as a hotshot in the coaching ranks, a young guy who was already coaching Junior A with the Brampton Capitals. The Brampton parents who were putting together the summer team asked Frost to be the coach. He accepted.
Keefe doesn't believe Mike Jefferson was on that ﬁrst summer team, but when the team was put together again the following summer, Keefe and Jefferson were teammates. The team was again coached by Frost. Keefe's recollection is that even though Frost, at ﬁrst, only coached him on two summer teams and was still busy coaching the Brampton Junior A team, he started showing up at Keefe's Chinguacousy games and "being around a lot more."
In their major peewee year, the Brampton parents who put together the summer team decided they wanted to move, as a group, to the Greater Toronto Hockey League. Again, they asked Frost if he would be the coach. And again, Keefe and Jefferson were recruited to join them. They all joined the Toronto Young Nationals major peewee team in the GTHL. Frost, who was still coaching Junior A at the time, was the coach.
"We played like a bunch of nobodies," Keefe said. "The Toronto Red Wings were the hot ticket." Joe Goodenow, the son of then NHL Players' Association executive director Bob Goodenow, was one of the big names on the Red Wings. When the major peewee season ended, the best players on the Red Wings, including Goodenow, and the best players on the Nats, including Keefe, Jefferson and another Brampton friend, defenceman Shawn Cation, joined forces on the minor bantam Nats team, which was coached by Frost.
In minor bantam and major bantam, the Nats were a powerhouse team, winning the all-Ontario bantam championship. David Frost and Bob Goodenow—who was one of the two most powerful men in professional hockey at the time—developed a relationship.
Frost's championship Nats were a much greater team than the sum of its parts. Only one player off the bantam Nats, Lance Galbraith, was taken in the ﬁrst three rounds of the OHL draft—in the third round, to Ottawa. At the time, 16-year-olds could only play in the OHL if they were drafted in the ﬁrst three rounds, so Galbraith was the only team member going directly to the OHL.
Keefe was a small and physically underdeveloped player in bantam—a good player, but no longer dominant, though Bob Goodenow gave him a nickname that would stick: "The Professor," reﬂecting his heady ways as a player and someone who always seemed to be processing things in his mind. Jefferson was small but strong and aggressive, a relentless worker. Neither, though, was good enough to be drafted into the OHL at 16.
It was after the fact, when Frost's troubles ﬁrst came to light, that newspaper stories were published, reporting Frost verbally abused and physically intimidated his Young Nats players to get the most out of them. If Keefe had any issues with Frost or his abusive ways in minor hockey, he didn't let on, citing a burgeoning and largely positive relationship between Frost and the boys from Brampton at that time, anyway.
"We all looked up to him," Keefe said of Frost. "He was a young guy, a passionate coach, much different than we were used to. He was a [Junior A] coach. We all started to attend or work at his hockey school in the summer. There was a lot more interaction away from hockey. The relationship became more involved to the point where I looked at him as the guy who knew what he was doing, who would point us in the right direction and tell us what we should be doing."
And Frost didn't just forge a relationship with his players. He befriended their parents, too.
"Steve Jefferson, initially, really took to Dave," Keefe said. "Dave spent a lot of time at the Jeffersons'. My dad spent a lot of time there, too. It was a hangout for them. They would drink there. We thought the relationship was good. Both my family and the Jefferson family recognized and looked at it as a positive for our hockey [at the time]. We were happy."
For all the talk of verbal and possibly physical abuse with the Nats, it was ironic that Frost ran afoul of the GTHL for something relatively innocuous: forging a parent's signature on a form. He was ultimately suspended and lost his ability to coach sanctioned minor or junior hockey. But that didn't stop him.
There was an "outlaw" Junior A league in Ontario. Frost, along with the Abrams brothers, Marty and Kevin, got involved with a team, the infamous Quinte Hawks, based in Deseronto, Ontario, just east of Belleville.
The Abrams brothers assembled a big, strong team, not just taking some core players from the Nats—Keefe, Jefferson and Cation—but also recruiting talented players from all over Ontario. Ryan Barnes, from Dunnville, Ontario, joined the group, as did big defenceman John Erskine, the future NHLer who had been playing minor hockey in Ajax, Ontario. In addition to Keefe, Jefferson and Cation, Frost placed two older players he knew from junior A, Larry Barron and Darryl Tiveron, in Quinte.
Frost didn't have any ofﬁcial role with Quinte to start the season, other than to supply his ﬁve players to the Abrams brothers. Greg Royce was the head coach. Jefferson and Keefe were actually cut in training camp, which prompted Frost to also pull Cation, Barron and Tiveron out of Quinte. All ﬁve, brieﬂy, went home to Brampton and played for Lindsay Hofford's Bramalea Blues Junior A team in the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League. But it wasn't going well for them in Bramalea, and it wasn't going well for Quinte, either. With the Hawks off to a slow start, the ﬁve returned to Quinte along with Frost, who at that point was named an assistant coach to Royce. But the truth was, Frost was effectively calling all the shots.
From a purely hockey perspective, Quinte was a good move for Keefe and Jefferson. Keefe, a skilled, cerebral player, scored 21 goals and 44 points in 44 games. Jefferson racked up 281 penalty minutes to go with 28 points in 35 games.
The Hawks under Frost were a huge, physically intimidating team. "It was a monster team," said Keefe, who estimated he played that season at 145 pounds. "So many of the 16-year-olds were huge, so much bigger than me."
Barnes was over 6 feet tall and had 245 penalty minutes; Erskine was six foot four and collected 241 PIM.
The Hawks ﬁnished the season with a 34–13–3 record, and more than half the team—12 players, to be exact—got drafted into the OHL (one scout called it the most heavily scouted Junior A team ever). Erskine went No. 2 overall to the London Knights; Barnes 40th to Sudbury; Jefferson 85th to Sarnia; Keefe 101st to Plymouth; Cation 143rd to Oshawa.
But no one remembers the hockey side of things in Quinte; it was the off-ice issues that have been well documented and chronicled by major media outlets, including the CBC's The Fifth Estate, amongst others. The stories are now almost too well known to many Canadians.
In a Quinte playoff game in April 1997, Frost punched Tiveron in the face on the bench. It was witnessed by off-duty police ofﬁcers. Frost was subsequently arrested, charged and suspended. He would later plead guilty but receive a conditional discharge.
But the biggest headlines to emerge from the Quinte year were the salacious ones, involving sex and drinking and partying. Frost lived in a motel room, the infamous two-bedroom suite, Room 22 at the Bayview Inn, with three of his players—Barron (who was then 20), 21-year-old Tiveron and 16-year-old Keefe. Jefferson and Cation, also both 16, were reported to be regular visitors, as were teenage girls from the town. What went on there later led to Frost being charged with 12 counts of sexual exploitation involving teenage boys and girls, none of which ever resulted in a conviction. Not that the lack of a guilty verdict made the conduct acceptable, because it wasn't.
How accurate, Keefe was asked, were the published reports of the goings on in Room 22?
"Pretty accurate," he said, "in the sense that it was accurate but exaggerated. The thing that was exaggerated was that it was portrayed as nonstop, Monday-to-Sunday partying. It was the opposite, actually. We had one day a week when guys would get together and party. If you think we were up to all hours of the night on a regular basis, you don't know David Frost very well. It was very regimented."
It was, Keefe added, also totally inappropriate.
"Frost was our adult supervision and also the coach of our team," Keefe said, "and he was present for some of these parties. Clearly, now that I'm a coach myself, I'm aware of how totally unacceptable that is." Through that entire season in Deseronto, Keefe believed he maintained a solid relationship with his family, who would regularly make the drive from Brampton to see his games.
"They were there quite a bit," Keefe said. "I thought the relationship was good. But we were away from home at age 16. Like a lot of kids, you become more independent. The inﬂuence of Frost was much greater than it had been. We started to feel less and less reliant on our parents. I don't recall any friction with my parents, but looking back on it now, that was probably the beginning of something. I never really [lived at home] after that."
If anything, Frost's inﬂuence over Keefe, Jefferson and Cation only gained momentum after the 1996–97 season in Quinte, though the members of what some had taken to calling the "Quinte cult" were going their separate ways. Brieﬂy, anyway.
Barnes, whose association with Frost at that time was limited to one season in Quinte, went off to the Sudbury Wolves. Jefferson joined the Sarnia Sting. But Keefe, drafted by Plymouth, and Cation, drafted by Oshawa, had other ideas. They were leaning towards the NCAA route.
"Plymouth pursued me, they were trying to recruit me as a 17-year-old, and the decision was made to not go," Keefe said. "Frost was calling the shots, telling us what he thought we should do. I was really small, 145 pounds. I wasn't the same type of player as Jefferson he was rugged, totally fearless. I had a lot of apprehension I couldn't play there. I remember feeling very insecure about my ability to play in the OHL. I wasn't ready. Frost saw that and I agreed."
Frost placed Keefe and Cation with the Caledon Canadians Junior A team coached by Greg Ireland, who Keefe said was an acquaintance of Frost's—they had coached against each other in Junior A. Keefe started to become much closer friends with Cation, whom he ﬁrst got to know in those summer hockey days back in Brampton. But Cation's parents and Shawn—not back then, anyway—weren't hanging with the Jeffersons, Keefes and Frost at Jefferson's house.
So Keefe and Cation moved back home, but for Keefe, it was only home in the ﬁgurative sense. "I started to spend a lot of time with [Frost] and his wife, Bridget, at their house in Brampton," Keefe said of life during the 1997–98 season. "I was spending nights there; I was spending less and less time at home. [Frost] didn't discourage it. We'd hang out there, it was a place to go, close to my high school. I thought it was cool. He was a young, successful guy who was fun to be around and Bridget was welcoming and took care of meals and things. Having been away from home at 16, I guess I liked the independence [of hanging at Frost's house]. I thought my family life was still pretty good."
Keefe and Cation were making major strides on the ice with Caledon. Cation played well enough—15 goals, 36 points and 231 PIM in 46 games—to earn a scholarship the next season to Northern Michigan University. Keefe was planning on going the same route—until he started getting bigger and stronger in his 17-year-old season. He had a monster year, scoring 41 goals and 81 points with 117 PIM in 43 games.
"I started to feel more comfortable with the idea of playing in the OHL," Keefe said. "It was Frost's suggestion I play [major junior]. I didn't question that. I felt better about myself as a player."
That was merely the precursor to getting all the boys in the band back together again.
With a keen eye for talent and a bright hockey mind, Mike Futa is considered an NHL general manager in waiting. In 2014, he was co-director of amateur scouting with the Los Angeles Kings, but he was interviewed for GM jobs around the league during the 2013–14 season, subsequently being promoted by the Kings to be vice-president of hockey operations and director of player personnel.
In 1997–98, though, he was a 26-year-old assistant coach of the ﬁrst-year St. Michael's Majors, the OHL club afﬁliated with the prestigious Toronto Catholic high school that was returning to this level of junior hockey for the ﬁrst time since 1962. Futa therefore had a ringside view of the master manipulator Frost, who was moving his boys around hockey like pawns on a chessboard.
In his rookie OHL season, while Keefe and Cation were playing in Caledon, Jefferson had a falling out with his team in Sarnia. So Frost helped to orchestrate a midseason trade to the Majors.
"I knew Frost from when he coached the Nats," Futa said. "And that team in Quinte was maybe the most heavily scouted Tier II team ever. We'd all heard the stories about Frost and his boys, but we ﬁgured Jefferson could help us."
So the trade was made. Jefferson broke his leg after 18 games with the Majors and didn't play the rest of the season.
"He missed the last two months," Futa said, "but there were no issues. He'd sit at all the home games in the stands and watch with Frost."
When that 1997–98 season ended—the Majors ﬁnished with a terrible 15–42–9 record—Frost approached the Majors' brass (owner Reg Quinn, former NHL GM Gerry Meehan, head coach Mark Napier and assistant coach Futa) with a proposition.
"Frost said to me, ‘If you're prepared to give up some assets, you can get Sheldon Keefe's rights from Plymouth,'" Futa recalled. "He told me [Keefe and Jefferson] wanted to play together."
The Majors called Plymouth GM Peter DeBoer, offered a thirdround pick for Keefe's rights and made the deal.
"I told [Frost] we made the trade and asked if we needed to talk to Keefe [about reporting], and he was like, ‘Oh, no, he's out in the parking lot.' He wasn't actually, but it wasn't like there was any issue there. Frost knew Sheldon was coming."
At the start of that 1998–99 season, Jefferson was the Majors' top centre, while Keefe was the team's top right winger. The Majors got off to a slow start. Head coach Napier was replaced by Futa, a now 27-year-old rookie head coach.
"Their chemistry was unbelievable," Futa said. "Jefferson was just a beast on draws. Sheldon was the best player in the league. We sucked, but they were unbelievable."
Frost the puppet master was just getting warmed up, though.
Cation was in his freshman season at Northern Michigan, but didn't like it there. He wanted to come home. Frost told the Majors to get his rights from Oshawa. They did. Cation was reunited with Keefe and Jefferson. Then Frost told Futa that Ryan Barnes in Sudbury was available. The Majors traded for him, too, having the big, tough winger ride shotgun on a line with Keefe and Jefferson. Barnes had already been drafted into the NHL after his rookie OHL season, going 55th overall in the second round to Detroit in the 1998 draft.
The four Quinte Hawks were back together on the ice, but Frost was pulling the strings off it, too.
Futa was alternately awestruck and unnerved by what he was witnessing each and every day.
"They were the hardest-working hockey players I'd ever seen, and I had no control over them," Futa said. "Sheldon's tank would never empty. He was a machine. Jefferson was relentless. All four were inseparable on and off the ice. They were driven like I've never seen anyone driven in hockey. No one on the team wanted to do practice drills against them because it was game conditions, it was stick in your face. I would look at some of the really talented players on our team and I would think, ‘If only some of these guys had just a little bit [of the drive] these four guys had.' They wanted to be players so badly. Nobody wanted it as badly as they did. I feel guilty even complimenting them, because I know where it was coming from, but their drive was unbelievable."
Futa would recall that when NHL Central Scouting was coming in to take players' ofﬁcial height and weight measurements, Keefe and Jefferson were rigging their shoes with lifts to gain an extra half-inch and loading up on peanut butter sandwiches to pack on the pounds before a weigh-in. It was excessive, it was crazy, but this was their life.
"All of them, including me, were just chess pieces being moved around the board," Futa said. Frost controlled everything for the four players, on and off the ice.
Futa said he would put all four on the power play, and every move the players made on the ice was scripted by Frost, not the coach. The players would look up during the game to get hand signals from Frost. They had their own faceoff alignments and set plays off the draw. As a young ﬁrst-time head coach, Futa was overwhelmed. He had no control.
During one game at Maple Leaf Gardens, Futa benched Jefferson because Jefferson was only interested in ﬁghting Kingston opponent Sean Avery, a hated foe. During a stoppage in play, Jefferson left the bench without a word and skated the length of the ice to the Zamboni door at the north end of the rink and went to the dressing room to take off his equipment.
"He'd obviously gotten his signal from up top," Futa said.
If any opponent dared lay a hand on Keefe, Barnes would come ﬂying in, gloves off, to Keefe's defence.
They were a four-man team within a team. They might occasionally interact with another teammate or two, but it was cursory and superﬁcial.
Frost would regularly hound Futa with suggestions or orders on how he should be coaching. In those pre–cell phone days, Futa recalled he had a pager set to vibrate. It would be sitting on his desk, where it would faithfully go off between periods of games.
"The number would come up and I'd recognize it [as Frost's]," Futa said."It would be vibrating, ﬂying across my desk like a little Zamboni. I think that number is burned into my memory still, like that movie: [He whispers] ‘Check the children.' If [Frost] didn't get his message [to the boys] through me, he'd try to get it to them some other way. They were checking phone messages between periods. It was crazy."
It only got worse, especially after a game one night at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga. The power play hadn't gone well that night. When the game was over, the four players walked down the hall past Futa in their full equipment, minus their skates, their hockey bags slung over their shoulders.
"I said, ‘Where the f are you guys going?' and they just kept walking," Futa said. "Frost had ordered to them a nearby arena to work on the power play after the game. I can laugh about it now, because the ﬁfth guy on the power play—it was either Gerald Moriarity or Mark Popovic—said to me, ‘Coach, do I have to go with [the four of] them?' That was one of the ﬁnal straws for me."
Futa said none of Frost's boys was causing any problems away from the rink—they were good students, there were no problems with carousing or drinking—but he also wasn't aware of the full scope of what was going on.
Initially, the players were living close to St. Mike's in the apartment of an acquaintance of Frost: goaltending-school guru and instructor Jon Elkin. But Elkin, a single guy who worked a lot, wasn't around that much, so this largely unsupervised "billeting" wasn't working. In the span of less than a month, it was decided they would go "home." Except "home" in this case was back to Frost's house in Brampton.
All four spent more time there than at their actual homes. Barnes was from out of town, the only non-Brampton boy of the group, but according to Keefe, Barnes initially liked being part of the so-called "Quinte cult," a term Keefe didn't like or use then and ﬁnds even more cringeworthy now. Keefe maintained he still had a functioning family life, but cracks were starting to develop.
"My dad would get upset he didn't have much say with me anymore," Keefe said. "But my family was still supportive of me. They were still coming to watch my games. They were still giving me money. My whole time I played in the OHL, my parents were at games, I'd still go home, visit, eat dinner there."
Futa and the Majors had seen enough.
"It was a game where Barnes had taken what seemed like his 25th instigator penalty, and we had lost again," Futa said."Other kids on the team and their parents were getting upset. You could feel it all coming apart at the seams. It was out of control."
St. Mike's decided to trade the four of them, but Frost wouldn't permit them to be broken up. It had to be a four-player package deal. Futa knew there was no way the Majors would get equal value for what they were giving up in terms of the quartet's actual hockey-playing ability, and he knew Frost would have to broker the deal with some other OHL team. Keefe had an incredible 37 goals and 74 points in only 38 games; Jefferson had 18 goals, 40 points and 116 PIM in 27 games; Cation had 9 goals, 30 points and 129 PIM in 36 games; Barnes had 11 goals, 25 points and a whopping 215 PIM in 31 games, including 24 ﬁghting majors.
"We had made Jefferson our captain," Futa said. "It was entirely work ethic–driven. No one worked as hard as he did. Sheldon was the best player in the league going away, the top scorer in the league on a last-place team. Sheldon was a warrior, an absolute warrior. His knowledge of the game was incredible. The Professor, that's what he was called. I thought you could at times see him thinking through all of this. He knew this wasn't right."
At the OHL trade deadline in January 1999, St. Mike's traded all four to Barrie, getting back ﬁve players. It was not a good hockey trade for the Majors, but Futa was just relieved to be free of the lot of them. Mind you, even now, Futa still has a tough time reconciling how they could be so good and yet so bad; ﬁercely dedicated to improving as hockey players, but such terrible teammates and people.
"I can't say I disagree with any of that," Keefe said, looking back on those days. "It was crazy at times. I think anyone who would know me knew me as the guy who would speak up and disagree [with Frost] on something. I would say, ‘This is stupid.' As I got older, I got more wits, became a little more independent. A lot of the things we were being advised to do by Frost just didn't make sense. The isolation [from our teammates], that was the biggest thing. He just didn't want us around other players that he perceived as bad inﬂuences.
"I also didn't like the signals from the stands. That was very stupid. He had certain signals for Jefferson and certain signals for me. Jefferson would follow them to a T. My signals were different, really basic—skate more, move your feet, shoot more. Quite frankly, I wouldn't look up. We would feud a lot because I wouldn't follow the signals. I rebelled often, but I always stayed within the group."
Barrie brought more of the same. If anything, it escalated to even crazier levels than at St. Mike's.
Bert Templeton was the GM/coach who made the trade for Frost's boys. The feeling was Templeton, a legendary OHL hard-ass, a no-nonsense, tough-guy coach and manager, would tame the group. He tried. He battled with all four and with Frost as well. But when the Colts, with the second-best regular-season record in the OHL, lost to Oshawa in a seven-game, second-round playoff series, Templeton was ﬁred, replaced as GM/coach by Bill Stewart.
Keefe, though, was rewarded for his productivity in his ﬁrst OHL season by being chosen by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the 1999 NHL draft.
What unfolded in Barrie the next season, 1999–2000, is legendary—if by "legendary" you mean a gong show of epic proportions. It might be the single craziest season played in any league. Ever. There should be a book devoted entirely to the sheer nuttiness (not all of it, by any means, Frost-related) that transpired that season with the Colts, who on the face of it had a spectacular year, winning the OHL championship and playing in the Memorial Cup.
Early in the season, Cation was suspended 15 games by the OHL for his part in a brawl with Oshawa. In the same game against Oshawa, Ryan Barnes was suspended for 25 games for swinging his stick and breaking the ﬁngers of Generals assistant coach Curtis Hodgins—who sued Barnes, the Colts and the OHL and was awarded damages of more than $20,000.
Stewart was stripped of his GM duties by the league after he stowed a Ukrainian player, who didn't have the proper paperwork to get into the United States, in the equipment compartment under the bus to cross the border for a game in Erie, Pennsylvania. Colt defenceman Ryan O'Keefe was suspended for 24 playoff games for a slew-foot that fractured the ankle of an opposing player. The list could go on and on...But it was also the year in which Frost's group of four became three.
Barnes decided he'd had enough. His NHL team, the Detroit Red Wings, was obviously giving him guidance, but he'd grown weary of all that went with being in the so-called cult. Still playing on the same line as Keefe and Jefferson, for a time they wouldn't pass him the puck. They wouldn't talk to him. He was an outcast in their group, but was welcomed back into the Colts' team fold, where the rest of the players hated Keefe, Jefferson and Cation.
"I think [Barnes] got outside pressure rather than some awakening," Keefe said, looking back on it now. "Whether it was his family or the Red Wings, he said, ‘This isn't working for me.' Whatever it was, he made a good decision."
Barnes, who went on to play only two NHL games but still had a seven-year pro career, is a player agent in Ontario now.
"I haven't ever really talked [publicly] about those days, and it's probably best not to say anything now," said Barnes, who'll always be known as last into the "cult" and the ﬁrst out. Keefe said being hated by their teammates was eating him up, but he still refused to leave the group. Frost had this incredible hold over him and the others, though Keefe said his relationship with his family was still functional in his ﬁnal year of junior.
"As a young kid, I don't remember thinking any other way," Keefe recollected. "We were having success, it was going well. But it was intense, it was hard, it was draining. Our teammates hated us; we hated them. There was so much friction. We thought we were doing things the right way. No one worked harder than us. We would do full workouts after the game. Frost made us. We couldn't say no—we were under his control. How does that happen? I don't have an answer. I don't know other than we respected what he was saying. I don't know the exact deﬁnition of a cult, but you could certainly say that about us. It was a following, and he had that inﬂuence on us to follow him, to isolate us from the rest of the team."
The problem, really, was that in spite of what was an untenable situation, at odds with everything the team game of hockey is supposed to be about, Frost's boys were individually having incredible success and their team was on the way to winning a league championship. Against all odds.
The old four-man power play from St. Mike's was a good example of that.
"In Barrie, we also ran a four-man scheme," Keefe said. "Barnes in front of the net, Jefferson down low, Cation on the point, me on the half-wall; the ﬁfth guy might as well not have even been there because he wasn't part of it. We had the No. 1 power play in the league, or close to it, playing four on four."
Keefe shook his head at the memory of it, seemingly in equal parts amazement and disgust.
"I never knew this until after the fact, but [Bill Stewart] told the ﬁfth guy, the other defenceman playing with us on the power play, that when we set up offensively, he was to skate back down into his own end and stand by the goalie. [Stewart] just wanted to show everyone in the rink how ridiculous it was that we weren't including him as part of the power play," Keefe added. "I didn't even know that had happened until after the game. I was so focused on the four-man group, it was irrelevant to me who that ﬁfth guy was. I didn't even know he was missing. It's crazy, and it's even crazier we succeeded. It goes against everything. None of it makes any sense."
The totally dysfunctional Colts were a train wreck, albeit a winning train wreck. Stewart, who possessed a tremendous hockey mind, could be a crazy cowboy of a coach at times. The whole team behaved like idiots at the 2000 Memorial Cup, both on and off the ice. The organization had a season-long running battle with the league and OHL commissioner Dave Branch, who had suspended multiple Colt players and Stewart. The team walked out en masse from the Memorial Cup banquet when Branch started to speak. They pulled all sorts of stunts on the ice, they were constantly in the news, ultimately losing in the Cup ﬁnal to Rimouski. And while Jefferson was running his mouth nonstop at the Memorial Cup, garnering headlines for verbal attacks on Brad Richards and Ramzi Abid, amongst others, Keefe did something on the ﬁrst day of the tourney that would haunt him.
Contrary to what has often been reported, Keefe did not refuse to shake Branch's hand when he was given the OHL championship trophy. He shook hands with the commissioner on that occasion before accepting the trophy. It was during the opening ceremonies of the Memorial Cup that Keefe went down the line of dignitaries, shaking hands, and refused to do so with Branch. It was on national television. It would be convenient to blame this on Frost or the "cult," but as Keefe recalled it, none of that came into play in his mind.
"It was a totally spur-of-the-moment thing by me, just me," Keefe said. "I made a split-second decision, a really stupid decision."
The Colts were a fractured, dysfunctional group, but the common bond they shared at the time, from the coach on down, was an antileague, anti-Branch sentiment.
"One of the things our whole team had sort of rallied around was an ‘us versus the world' mentality," Keefe added. "People don't realize this, but we had a big sign in our dressing room that season that said, F THE LEAGUE. We had so many run-ins with the league, so many guys suspended. People have always tried to tie me not shaking hands with Branch as part of the Frost inﬂuence, but with the mindset our whole organization had, it was nothing more than a spur-of-the-moment decision by me. It was foolish."
Looking back, the only word Keefe can come up with to describe that ﬁnal junior season is "mind-boggling."
"We won the OHL, but no one liked us," he said. "We were a fragmented hockey team, and looking back on that now, I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. It makes me really wonder [what we were thinking]. It also makes me have a lot of respect for Bill Stewart. To coach, and win, in that environment—that was an incredible job by him."
In the six-year, mostly mediocre, professional hockey career of Sheldon Keefe, there was never any time when David Frost wasn't a factor in his life. But the irony is, as pro hockey served to put some physical distance—as well as a smaller but steadily increasing measure of emotional detachment—between him and Frost, their relationship caused Keefe more personal aggravation than even during the most tumultuous times in junior hockey.
It's almost as if his bill came due for all that success in junior.
Keefe never played more than 49 NHL games in any of his three seasons with Tampa, playing parts of each year in the minors. He had a modest 12 goals and 24 points with 78 PIM in 125 career NHL regular-season games.
In the summer of 2002, Frost became a player agent certiﬁed by the NHL Players' Association, but even before that, from the time Keefe showed up in Tampa in the fall of 2000, Frost was "representing" Keefe. How Frost was certiﬁed by the NHLPA, given his track record and history, was the subject of much conjecture at the time, but most everyone assumed it was owing to his closeness with Bob Goodenow, executive director of the association. (In December 2005, when Frost's toxicity in the hockey community was high—and also, perhaps not coincidentally, after Goodenow had stepped down as executive director that summer—Frost "resigned" as an agent.)
Frost would regularly harass Lightning management, complaining about how the diminutive free-agent signee Marty St. Louis was playing more than Keefe for coach John Tortorella. In his book on Danton and Frost, Steve Simmons quoted Tampa GM Jay Feaster at length, saying how most everyone in the organization liked Keefe as a person, but the constant haranguing they got from Frost, and Keefe's reluctance to accept more development time in the minors, ultimately was the player's undoing in Tampa. The same sort of situation was playing itself out in New Jersey with the Devils, who had selected Jefferson 135th overall in the 2000 NHL draft, the summer after the Colts' OHL championship.
Cation, by the way, never played pro hockey, heading off to a Canadian university career at St. Thomas University in the fall of 2000. When Keefe's three-year entry-level NHL contract with Tampa expired, the Lightning retained his rights by making him a qualifying offer. He signed a one-year contract, but was put on waivers before the regular season began. Keefe was claimed by the New York Rangers, spent a month there, but never played in a game before being put on waivers again and being reclaimed by Tampa. The Lightning sent him to Hershey of the AHL, where he played the 2003–04 season. He "loved" it in Hershey, had a good season with the Bears, and with each passing year, Frost's pervasive inﬂuence slowly receded.
"It was extensive still; we spent time together in the summer," Keefe said, noting he and Frost bought real estate together (Frost owned a house and Keefe a cottage on a piece of property in Battersea, near Kingston). "But he was not at my games—some, but not many—and we spent more time talking by phone before or after games than seeing each other. It was a habit, but as I got older in pro, it started to become less. We talked less, he was involved less. I made more decisions on my own." The same, Keefe said, went for his relationship with Danton. They would still spend time together in the off-season, talk or text occasionally during the season, but with each passing year it was getting to be less and less.
Keefe felt like he was maturing, planting the ﬁrst seeds of becoming his own man, but he noted it came with a price. "Not having any tangible relationships [in hockey] outside of [Frost's] group, that really wore on me," Keefe said. "So anyone who played with me from 2002 to 2005, I think, would tell you I was a good teammate. I know I was a good teammate then; I was starting to become the person I wanted to be. Admittedly, though, I wasn't nearly as committed [as a player]. I wasn't driven like I was before. I was maybe putting myself a little too far out there as the friendly, team-oriented guy. I lost my focus a little bit. That deﬁnitely hurt me as a player, but I felt better about myself."
In the summer of 2004, after his "happy" season in Hershey, Keefe signed a one-year NHL contract with the Phoenix Coyotes. But the NHL lockout wiped out that entire season. Keefe went to play for the Utah Grizzlies of the AHL during the lockout, but four games in, he totally blew out his knee—MCL, ACL, the whole nine yards. He didn't know it at the time, but it was the end of his professional hockey career.
Nothing that happened on the ice in Keefe's six years as a pro was as life-altering as what occurred off it during that time, and beyond.
In 2001, the Frost story got national treatment when the photograph of Mike Jefferson's 13-year-old brother Tom, wearing only underwear and taped to a chair, surfaced and got into the hands of the Children's Aid Society. Frost and those who were in attendance, including Keefe, maintained it wasn't as it appeared, but Tom Jefferson said he was physically abused; among the allegations, he said Frost pointed a pellet gun at him. A year-long police investigation resulted in no charges being laid, but it still had a big impact on Keefe's personal life.
Up to that point, unlike Mike Jefferson with his family, Keefe said he had always managed to maintain a decent relationship with his parents, Brian and Roberta, but the sordid details and negative publicity arising out of the Tom Jefferson–Dave Frost police investigation, taken at face value, changed everything.
"My parents weren't trusting or listening to what I was telling them," Keefe said. "I told them, ‘Don't overreact,' but they didn't side with me. They said, ‘Is that what was going on all those years [with Frost]?' What was being investigated [by police] and what my parents were saying, it wasn't accurate. Looking back now, I don't blame my parents for feeling that way, because there was such miscommunication between us. But I was very, very angry. This wasn't just about Frost; I was part of the investigation and it was wrong. I had to go through a lot of crap."
Keefe didn't talk to his parents for the better of part of two years, during which he was totally estranged from them. But one day in the fall of 2004, after he blew out his knee in Utah, he picked up the telephone and called home.
"I was [emotionally] hurt [by the estrangement], I was nursing my injured knee, but my head was very clear," he said. "I called my mom and we cleared the air."
And he knows why he did, too.
"When I was younger [in junior], even going through that period where I didn't feel like I needed anyone, I was successful," Keefe said.
"I had my [Frost] friends, I still had my family and I felt independent, even if I wasn't truly independent. But as I got older, my hockey was going downhill, I got a girlfriend, I had a lot more time to think about things, and I realized I just wanted to have a really good relationship with my family. That was very clear to me."
Keefe also, in the spring and summer of 2004, had to contend with the fallout from Danton's criminal conviction for what the FBI said was a failed to plot to have Frost killed in St. Louis, where Danton had been traded from the Devils.
"I didn't have much information on any of that, and what information I did have didn't make any sense to me," Keefe said of Danton's arrest and subsequent imprisonment. But that was also the beginning of the end of Keefe's relationship with Danton.
Still, through all of this, Frost continued to be part of Keefe's life, even after Keefe reconciled with Brian and Roberta. Maybe not like he was in earlier years, but Frost was a still a presence.
In 2003, at the behest of Kevin Abrams (who was part of the Quinte Hawks' ownership group in 1997), Keefe used $175,000 of his NHL money to become the sole owner of the Pembroke Lumber Kings Junior A franchise in the Ottawa Valley. Keefe said the plan was for him to own it, but while he was still an active pro player, Abrams would run it. And that's how things started. But Keefe came back to Pembroke after his knee surgery in 2004–05 and rehabbed there. In January, he started to become more actively involved in the operation of the team, helping Abrams, even jumping behind the bench for games. Frost was, with Keefe's blessing, also involved with the team as sort of an unofﬁcial assistant coach. He wasn't on the ice for practices or on the bench for games, but he was in the stands and around the team a lot.
With the NHL lockout over and his knee rehabbed, Keefe's oneyear contract with the Coyotes had rolled over to the 2005–06 season.
He was hoping for it to be a big year on two fronts. One, a return to the NHL for himself. Two, Abrams had assembled a Pembroke team that was ranked as one of the top Junior A clubs in the country and was hosting the Fred Page Cup, which was the Eastern Canadian championship and only one step removed from the Royal Bank Cup national championship tournament.
Keefe went to the Coyotes' camp, but it was disastrous. He had trained all summer in preparation, but he didn't do a thorough job with his knee rehab. He was able to get through the skating portions of camp, but couldn't walk at the end of each day. The Coyotes assigned him to the minors before he had even played a preseason game. He refused to report to the minors, asked for a trade, raised the possibility of being assigned to Hershey, but he knew the end was at hand. His knee was messed up; his dedication to getting it back to where it needed to be wasn't there, so he didn't actually play a game anywhere in 2005–06, and then made it ofﬁcial in the summer. He was retiring as a hockey player.
"When it came to a decision of still trying to play [pro] or going back to Pembroke to run the team, it was easy for me, just like that," Keefe said, snapping his ﬁngers. "I knew what I wanted to do [with his life]."
Keefe made that important decision after consulting with Frost and Abrams. Frost told Keefe he supported Sheldon's decision but would rather Keefe continue to play, but Keefe was adamant. He was quitting. Meanwhile, the Lumber Kings' 2005–06 season had gone down the tubes. Having Frost around the team hadn't gone well. Because of his reputation, his presence was attracting negative attention. Keefe said that at no time in Pembroke did Frost have—or try to have—a relationship with any of the players the way he'd had with the Brampton Boys, but he'd worn out his welcome there nonetheless.
When Keefe sat down with Frost in the summer of 2006 to talk about his own retirement, Frost had already announced he wouldn't be back with the Lumber Kings the following season. That was not only ﬁne with Keefe, but he knew it had to be, that Frost was toxic in Pembroke and would severely hamper, if not ruin, Keefe's desire to build a new life for himself as a junior team owner/operator and coach.
"[Frost] was originally part of the team with my blessing," Keefe said, "but I wasn't happy when all the negative attention was coming onto the team and the community. I couldn't have that. [Frost] had to go."
Little did Keefe realize, though, how quickly things in Pembroke would go from toxic to radioactive. It was not lost on Sheldon Keefe that, at a time when he was embarking on a new life of sorts—ﬁnally trying to assert himself as a more independent young man, telling Frost in no uncertain terms he couldn't be in Pembroke or around Keefe's Lumber Kings team—a giant sinkhole opened up on the road to redemption. The past— Keefe's and Frost's—reached up and grabbed Keefe, pulling him right back into the morass.
It was during the Lumber Kings' 2006 training camp that all hell broke loose. On September 6, after an Ontario Provincial Police investigation, Frost was charged with 12 counts of sexual exploitation involving teenage boys and girls over a period from 1995 to 2001. Keefe's past life with Frost—speciﬁcally what went on in Room 22 of the Bayview Inn in Deseronto during the 1996–97 season, was back in the news.
It wasn't good news, but it was big news, a national story, that ran on front pages across the country and was the lead item on all the network news programs. Pembroke was crawling with reporters and news organizations. Next to Frost, no one was more squarely in the media's crosshairs than Keefe. And the people of Pembroke were not happy to be drawn into Frosty's world. Not happy at all.
"I really thought it was all over for me [in Pembroke] before it had even started," Keefe said. "Because of Frost, my name in town was mud. I was being shunned. Here I am, I'm in my ﬁrst year coaching and running a business, with no experience, really, and there is this huge controversy in Pembroke. I'm in the middle of it all. There was a lot of cleaning up to be done."
Perhaps the most misleading aspect was that the charges against Frost publicly cemented or reinforced the long-standing bond between him and Keefe when—at least in his own mind—Keefe had already begun, both emotionally and physically, detaching from Frost. The testimony at Frost's trial was subjected to a publication ban, making it illegal to report on who said what. But that didn't stop many accounts from reporting that Keefe and the others testiﬁed at the trial and that the testimony ostensibly ended up being on behalf of or in favour of Frost. Eight of the 12 charges were dropped, and Frost was acquitted of the remaining four in August 2009. Still, the court case and legal entanglements actually helped to solidify Keefe's estrangement from Frost. Keefe's focus, at that point, was on getting on with the new life he was trying to forge for himself.
"When he was ﬁrst charged, I legally couldn't see or talk to him," Keefe said, "and I had already really cut back on talking to him or seeing him anyway. We sold the property we owned together. That was the last of our ties."
At the same time, Keefe was also moving on from his childhood friend Mike Danton. Keefe did visit Danton after the latter was incarcerated in 2004, and for a time, they continued to communicate by mail, but as with his relationship with Frost, it just ran its course and petered out. "Mike became pretty bitter [with me]," Keefe said. "He didn't feel I was writing enough or supporting him enough when he was in prison.
I felt as though I went through a lot of crap for how out of control the whole situation had gotten. I had a girlfriend. I had a business [the Lumber Kings]. I had started to live my own life and wanted to focus on my own life. I think he was bitter about that. Leading up to [Danton's prison] release [in September 2009, not long after Frost was acquitted on the four sexual exploitation charges], I had no communication with [Danton] at all. The last few years he was in prison, there was no contact. When he was released, I just decided it's not something I wanted to be associated with."
Often asked to pinpoint the exact moment when Frost was no longer a part of Keefe's life, he used the date of his wedding to wife Jackie—June 28, 2008—as the ofﬁcial marker.
"Everyone wants to know exactly when I last saw or talked to [Frost], and I can't tell you, not precisely, because I'm not sure," Keefe said. "There was no big blowup, no deﬁning moment. Our relationship went from daily contact to weekly to monthly to a few times a year to nothing. I can tell you he wasn't invited to my wedding; he didn't attend my wedding. I know for a fact I haven't physically seen him since before [the wedding]. I know there was some sporadic [verbal] communication right around the time Danton was being released from prison [about 14 months after the wedding], but that was the end of it. My son [Landon] was born in 2010, [second son] Wyatt was born in 2012, and [Frost] has never seen or met my kids. We no longer have any ties. I was living in Pembroke during the season, living in Arizona [his wife Jackie's family is from Scottsdale] in the summers. There was no reason for me to communicate with him."
There was, however, huge incentive for Keefe to not be associated with Frost in any way. From the moment the fertilizer hit the fan in Pembroke in September 2006, Keefe knew his only hope to survive was to prove to everyone he was his own man. His entire future in Pembroke hinged on it.
"I remember a meeting in town with some of the most inﬂuential business leaders," Keefe said. "I was trying to get their blessing and [get them to] back me in the community, but it was a tough time. It was to the point where some of these gentlemen were going to pool their money to [buy me] out of there. I pleaded with them to have lunch with me, I asked them to understand my perspective, I assured them there would be nothing more to do with Frost, how I knew I had zero chance of success if I wasn't being honest. A lot of those gentlemen became major allies. One of them came to my wedding in Arizona.
"I knew I had to earn people's respect, literally one at a time. I had to be out in the community. I had to be visible. You know, it would have probably been easier for me to get out of hockey entirely, just live in Arizona and be out of the spotlight. But I'm competitive, I like hockey and I had what I thought was a wonderful opportunity. As much as I was aware of my past and the hurdles I would have to overcome, I looked at Pembroke as a place where I could, with my family, put down some roots. I had lived in seven cities in four years in pro, I played for two major junior teams, two Junior A teams—I had no stability in my life. That's how I viewed Pembroke: a chance for stability."
What happened during Keefe's seven seasons in Pembroke was remarkable by any measure. With him as the owner, GM and head coach, Keefe's teams had a collective record of 265–76–20, making him the fastest coach to reach 200 wins in league history. The Lumber Kings won ﬁve consecutive Central Canada Hockey League titles, two Fred Page Cups (in 2007 and 2011) and a Royal Bank Cup national championship in 2011—also coming very close in 2007, when they lost to eventual champion Aurora in the semiﬁnal. Keefe was also able to bring his friend Shawn Cation back into the fold. Cation, who had been estranged from Frost even longer than Keefe, was an assistant coach in Pembroke for a couple of seasons and continued to help Keefe out beyond that after moving to Ottawa for a job outside hockey.
Keefe took to Twitter and established the highly public proﬁle of a happy family man who was a well-respected member of the community, running a model Junior A franchise and thriving business—not only developing hockey players to compete at higher levels (NCAA and OHL), but moulding teenagers into young men, a far cry from the image a Sheldon Keefe–David Frost word-association exercise would have yielded before 2006.
"He's a great coach," said Lumber King grad Ben Dalpe, who played two seasons (2011–12 and 2012–13) there. "He's a players' coach, you can talk to him about anything at any time, his door is always open, but if you need a kick in the ass, you're going to get one. He's so smart, but he's also so competitive.
"When I went there to visit Pembroke with my dad, we were aware of the stories about his past, the Frost stuff, and we knew he'd been through a lot in his life. But he was running one of the best programs in junior hockey and I wanted to be part of that."
Maybe that is the least surprising part of it all. The Professor always knew the game, processed and thought it on a different level from so many. And he knew that if he could, one by one, win over his players, fans and community leaders, he'd be known more for what he's doing and will do than for what he did such a long time ago.
"I'll bet you some of the players and families who left Pembroke after their time with our organization never even knew my story or anything about David Frost," Keefe said. "They came because they heard good things about Pembroke, there were zero incidents during my time as head coach, and they wanted to be part of something good. Then they would leave and spread the word. One graduate telling someone else, from staff and volunteers and players and their families. One by one. That's what it's about for me: I want to be able to make my mark, have stability and be in control of my own life."
Where there was once revulsion for Keefe, there were now the early signs of respect.
Keefe's success in Junior A, not only on the ice in terms of winning championships, but how his players and organization carried themselves off it, didn't go unnoticed.
After the Lumber Kings won the 2011 RBC national championship, Keefe was asked to be head coach of Team East in the 2011 Canadian Junior Hockey League's Top Prospects game. A year later, he applied to coach the Canada East team in the World Junior A Challenge, and while he didn't get the head-coaching position (it went to Greg Walters), he was asked to be Walters's assistant coach. Because the World Junior A Challenge is a sanctioned Hockey Canada international event, there was a high level of scrutiny. With it, though, came a ﬁgurative seal of approval from Hockey Canada. It was as if some counterculture kid who lost his way had been welcomed back into the establishment.
It was a step, a notable one—but it was just one.
Keefe suspected even then that not everyone might be so quick to forgive or forget his past, to give him the beneﬁt of the doubt.
When Sheldon Keefe was a kid playing minor hockey, as focused and driven as he was, he never ever thought of it as a means to an end, a journey to the NHL. He wasn't a big dreamer. There was never any grand or master plan—not in his mind. He just liked to play the game and do whatever was necessary to be good at it. It was much the same once he started coaching in Pembroke. He didn't go into coaching there thinking, "This will get me to the OHL or the NHL."
"For one thing, I didn't know if I was any good [at coaching]," Keefe said. "For another, I'm well aware of my past, the hurdles I have to cross. I did eventually get conﬁdence that I knew what I was doing [coaching] and I did think this is going to be a career for me [in Pembroke], but I didn't look at it and say, ‘I'm doing this to coach in the OHL or the NHL.' I never thought of or expected that. To be honest, I thought I was too toxic for that."
That changed, though, in 2012. Putting together a winning program in Pembroke, surprising even himself by getting a little love from the hockey establishment—via the CJHL and Hockey Canada—and being able to mend a fence with Mike Futa allowed Keefe to at least consider the notion of moving up the coaching ranks. Futa, that 27-yearold rookie head coach who couldn't deal with Frost and his boys at St. Mike's, went on to become a respected OHL general manager in Owen Sound and then the well-regarded co-director of amateur scouting for the L.A. Kings. As Keefe got more and more successful in Pembroke, their paths would occasionally cross, with Futa looking for an opinion on a CCHL player who was eligible for the NHL draft. At some point, though, their talks got a lot deeper.
"My ﬁrst thought was, ‘Am I being manipulated or snowed here?'" Futa said."I'm working in the NHL now and I'm not going to get played by anyone. I told Sheldon I would listen to what he had to say and give him advice, but if [Frost] is still in the picture in any way, I can't and I won't put my neck on the line for him. Not this time. Sheldon told me, ‘Those guys [Frost and Danton] are out of my life.' Now, Sheldon had done nothing to earn my trust, but I wasn't the least bit surprised he was doing well as a coach and winning championships. He always was smart and he had a work ethic."
Futa, however, sensed Keefe was in earnest, that Frost was no longer in the picture. Futa also told Keefe, regardless of whether he wanted to coach at the next level or not, he had to make amends. Speciﬁcally, Futa told Keefe he owed a handshake and an apology to OHL commissioner Dave Branch. Futa went so far as to try to broker it, but sufﬁce it to say Branch didn't immediately embrace the opportunity. Keefe was going to have to earn his way into people's good books with actions over words.
"The moment when I really knew Sheldon was different, that he was for real, was when I met his wife [Jackie] and kids," Futa said. "I was at a rink and I saw this woman and her children in the hallway, and [Jackie] came up and introduced herself and the kids to me. She knew who I was and she thanked me for helping out Sheldon. When I saw her and the children, when I saw how happy they were, that's when I realized Sheldon was for real. If he wasn't [for real], he'd be throwing away this [his family], and I just couldn't imagine him doing that. That's when I knew, that's when I felt really conﬁdent [about Keefe]."
Sheldon said he and Jackie met in Springﬁeld, Massachusetts, late in Keefe's third pro season—or as Jackie quickly reminded him, April 16, 2003. Springﬁeld was a shared farm team between Tampa and Phoenix. Some of the Phoenix-owned players in Springﬁeld had their girlfriends from Arizona visit them that season. Jackie was a friend of one of those girlfriends, and she tagged along on a visit, meeting Sheldon.
They hit it off, but carried on a mostly long-distance relationship for a couple of years, Jackie back home in Scottsdale, Sheldon in Hershey the following season and Utah the year after that. They continued to see more and more of each other as time wore on. In the summer of 2006, when Keefe had retired and was going to make a fulltime go of it in Pembroke, they got engaged, bought a house there and worked together to build the business.
"It was nice for me to have Jackie, because she helped to give me a sense of normalcy that had been missing in my life," Keefe said. "I'd always lived with all the ‘noise' from the Frost situation, and from day one with Jackie, it was about establishing a life for ourselves."
Not that it was easy for the woman he married in 2008.
"When the dust gets kicked up [about Frost], it's stressful for her," Keefe said. "I can deal with it because I'm used to it, but it's much harder for her."
Backed by his wife, armed with more support from hockey people like Futa, Keefe allowed himself to dream of moving up. There were OHL coaching vacancies in Mississauga and Owen Sound that summer of 2012. And Keefe did apply, without success, for the latter. He had also previously interviewed for a job in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but when the 2012–13 season began, he was still in Pembroke. And that was just ﬁne by Keefe, especially with the World Junior A Challenge coming up in November.
If life was going well for Keefe in Pembroke—and it was—the same could not be said for Kyle Dubas in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. At the age of 25, hometown boy Dubas had been hired by the Greyhounds in April of 2011, amid much fanfare, as the second-youngest GM in OHL history.
In his ﬁrst full season as GM, in November 2011, Dubas made a bold, blockbuster trade with Windsor, acquiring netminder Jack Campbell for two players and seven draft picks. The highly touted young American was in his ﬁnal OHL season and was supposed to put a veteran-laden Greyhound team over the top. Instead, the bottom fell out. The Greyhounds not only ﬁnished ninth and out of the playoffs, but in giving up seven draft picks they also appeared to have gutted their future. It would get worse. On the eve of their 2012 training camp, three Greyhounds were charged with sexual assault (the charges were dropped after the 2012–13 season). Coach Mike Stapleton's team then stumbled out of the gate, going 13–14–2–0. Dubas ﬁred Stapleton on December 3, 2012, replacing him with Keefe. But the young GM had been contemplating the move for weeks. He needed that much time to do his due diligence.
"I knew that if I screwed this up [ﬁring Stapleton and hiring Keefe], I was not only likely to lose my job, but I might be out of hockey entirely," Dubas said. "I was under pressure to get it right, to make sure I was making a good decision for our organization. I felt like I was really putting my neck on the line."
Dubas saw Keefe at the World Junior A Challenge in early November. Quietly, knowing he would likely be making a coaching change, Dubas began calling around for references on Keefe. He was shocked at how positive so many of them were, especially from rival coaches and executives in the CCHL.
"I ﬁgured there would be jealousy and resentment from his peers because he was so successful," Dubas said, "but I was shocked to ﬁnd out how well respected Sheldon was. They were basically saying to me that they thought it was a travesty he's not coaching at a higher level."
Dubas also went to former Pembroke players and parents, digging hard to ﬁnd out if there was any dirt on Keefe. He couldn't ﬁnd it.
"Even the kids who got cut by Keefe had good things to say about him," Dubas said. "It was remarkable."
Five days before the actual hiring, Dubas and Keefe met for six hours. A copious note taker, Dubas didn't write anything down. He just asked questions, listened and tried to judge for himself whether this man before him was worthy of being entrusted with an OHL franchise.
"What struck me more than anything else was how brutally honest Sheldon was about his past," Dubas said. "I knew after meeting him he was the right man for the job."
Still, Dubas knew there would be a backlash in the media and some parts of the hockey community. He had to sell his owners on the idea and prepare them for the possibility of negative publicity.
Toronto Sun columnist Simmons, who wrote the book on Danton and Frost, tweeted about Keefe's hiring that day: "I hope for the sake of players and parents on Soo Greyhounds, they have done thorough due diligence before hiring @SheldonKeefe as coach."
Keefe had his own message he put out on Twitter that day: "Those that base opinions solely on what they know from 7–18 years ago, your concerns are valid but give it a chance. U just might be surprised."
For the junior hockey cognoscenti, those familiar with Keefe's track record as a coach in Pembroke, the move made all kinds of sense. But there was all that baggage. For most people, Sheldon Keefe's name couldn't be mentioned without conjuring up dark images of David Frost or Mike Danton. Many in hockey believed if Keefe was coming, Frost couldn't be far behind, pulling all his strings.
It mattered little to some that Keefe made an immediate impact with the Greyhounds, going 23–12–1–3 to turn things around and get them into the playoffs, where they lost in the ﬁrst round. Or that he followed it up with a tremendous 44–17–2–5 record and a ﬁrst-place ﬁnish in the West Division in his ﬁrst full season (2013–14), earning rave reviews and accolades from his players, including high-proﬁle future NHL stars like Edmonton ﬁrst-round pick Darnell Nurse. His .678 winning percentage, admittedly on a limited 107-game sample size, was the best in franchise history. Or that he was named by Hockey Canada as one of three head coaches for Canadian entries in the prestigious 2014 World Under-17 tournament.
Some skeptics, though, remained, uh, extremely skeptical.
"You know he's still seeing Frost, don't you?" an OHL owner said during the 2013–14 season.
The owner was asked if he knew that for a fact.
"Well, that's what I've heard," the owner said. "If you look closely, you'll see he still has ties to Frost."
One of them, depending upon your deﬁnition of a "tie," is Soo Greyhound goaltending consultant Jon Elkin, who was hired by the OHL team after Keefe was employed. That raised some eyebrows. Elkin, you may recall, was an acquaintance of Frost's back in Keefe's junior hockey days at St. Mike's. Frost had arranged for the Brampton Boys to brieﬂy live at Elkin's Toronto apartment when they played for the Majors.
"They know each other, they had an association a long time ago because of their hockey school businesses, but they've never had a relationship the way some people perceived it to be," Keefe said. "Jon knew very little about what our relationship was like with Frost, and [as for] what Jon did know, he served as an adult voice of reason to let Frost know that the isolation that existed around us was not normal. It's so unfair to make Jon any part of this. I think anyone who knows Jon knows that he's his own man. He's also a very good goalie coach."
Indeed, Elkin has an impressive hockey resumé. He's worked for the Calgary Flames and numerous OHL franchises, as well as with countless individual goalies. When the Greyhounds called to do a background check on Elkin, they found a goalie coach/consultant with solid references from previous employers. And maybe most important of all, when the Hounds decided to hire him, Elkin was already the personal goaltending coach of Greyhound goalie Matt Murray.
"I know Jon to be the best goalie coach in North America, he had a previous relationship with Matt Murray, and we felt he could really help Matt," Keefe said. "We interviewed a number of people, and when it came time to make the decision on the best candidate, I separated myself from all of that and let Kyle handle it. There's been no issue— not with any of the teams Jon has worked with in the past, and not with the Greyhounds, either. None. Jon has been a tremendous addition to our staff."
The other connection to Frost, though, was a much thornier one for Keefe. It's his younger brother Adam. Even though Adam never had the same type of all-consuming relationship with Frost as Sheldon, Adam Keefe remained friends with Frost—and for that matter, with Danton, too. It was a source of some friction between the brothers.
"I have only selﬁsh concerns," Sheldon Keefe said, "[about] how it affects me. Adam knows I'm not thrilled about it. I have no relationship with David Frost. None. My brother does.
It doesn't impact Adam negatively. You have to understand, Adam's relationship with Frost was never anything like mine. Adam's was very casual. He got to know Frost and his family, and on occasion, from time to time, maybe once a year Adam will see them. I don't feel great about that relationship, and when I bring it up to Adam, he comes back with he wasn't around for all of my stuff and his own experiences have been positive.
"My brother is a quality guy, and I have to respect that with him. My parents know all about it. When Adam comes home from playing overseas in the summer, he lives with my parents. He's very much his own man, he makes all the decisions in his life. Adam still also speaks with Mike Danton. Adam did support Mike in prison when I didn't. Adam is a very caring guy; he's sensitive to what Mike has been through. That's Adam's life, not mine. We don't talk about that [anymore]. It's nothing to do with me. It's out of my control."
If someone wants to draw the inference that, because Adam Keefe occasionally consorts with Frost or Danton, Sheldon Keefe must be doing the same, Sheldon said there's nothing he can do about that.
"I can only control what I can control," Keefe said. "So that's what I'm doing [in Sault Ste. Marie], one person at a time."
If there's one thing that stands out above all others when Sheldon Keefe tells you his story, it is how he's willing to take ownership of much of what he has done or said in his life. He's not blaming anyone but himself—not even Frost, really—for how things went. But if only brieﬂy, Keefe did allow himself the forgiveness some others may not be prepared to offer.
"As a young guy, in many senses, I may have been somewhat more a victim than an accomplice," Keefe said, "and I'm not sure anyone looked at it in that manner."
That's as close as Keefe came to feeling sorry for himself or deﬂecting. He had no problem with those who have a problem with him, but if you listen carefully, there's also a message in there.
"If there is anyone who feels negatively toward me because of the player I was, because of what I did back then, if I see them now and they still feel that way towards me, I understand that," he said. "I deserve that. If someone wants to live in the past, I fully understand why they would feel about me the way they do. But if they have contact with me now, if they have gotten to know me in Junior A or the OHL or even my last couple of years I played pro hockey, I think they would come away with a more positive experience, certainly not what my reputation was."
Keefe certainly won over Mike Futa.
"I really believe he's found his way," Futa said. "If I were asked, ‘Give me the name of someone we should be looking at for an AHL coaching job,' there's nothing in my mind anymore that would prevent me from saying, ‘You need to consider hiring this guy.' I believe this is a good story."
Even though Keefe coached in the OHL, and stood on a bench across the way from Guelph Storm assistant coach Bill Stewart, as of 2014 the two had not spoken since Keefe played for Stewart.
"It's a strange dynamic," Keefe said of the non-relationship with Stewart. "Bill has many reasons to be bitter at me, but I can say I'm happy to see him back in the league. He's an outstanding coach."
In March 2014, just days after this interview with Keefe was conducted, Keefe ﬁnally met with OHL commissioner Branch in Thorold, Ontario, the ﬁrst time they had been face to face since the 2000 Memorial Cup handshake snub.
Keefe extended his hand, shook hands with the commissioner and said to him, "I've been waiting a long time to shake that hand."
They then shared some conversation.
"My view is that Sheldon was a young person, and young people sometimes make interesting choices or decisions," Branch said. "But that's part of being young. We get older and we see things differently.
Sheldon and I had a very good talk, a good discussion, and I am happy we had it." Symbolically, it was a big moment for Keefe.
"It was important for me to get some closure," Keefe said. "The situation with Branch was one that really ate at me for a long time. It's not how I wanted to represent myself. It's a constant reminder of how messed up a time it was for me."
The good citizens of Pembroke didn't just forgive and forget Keefe for those Frosty times in the fall of 2006, they honoured him like a conquering hero of the Ottawa Valley. On October 4, 2013, Keefe and his whole family, as well as a surprise appearance by the entire Greyhound team, were in attendance for a pre-game ceremony when the Lumber Kings, CCHL and city of Pembroke paid tribute to him in a banner-raising ceremony, listing his accomplishments there. He also received the key to the city from the mayor.
Keefe went from being shunned in Pembroke to getting legend status in the arena rafters.
Not everyone is sold on Keefe, though.
Simmons, the newspaper columnist and author of the DantonFrost-Jefferson book, can't get there and maybe never will.
"I wish I could believe that Sheldon Keefe has completely turned his life around, and from everyone I talk to in the junior hockey world, he's a terriﬁc coach, maybe an NHL coach one day," Simmons said. "But there's a part of me deep down that wonders about him. Maybe I know too much about his past...
"Yes, all of that was years ago. And sometimes we change and grow up and leave our pasts behind. But if I was a parent of a player going to Sault Ste. Marie to play, I would have a boatload of questions for Sheldon before allowing my son to do so. I would want him to answer for some of the things he's never answered for. And despite all the good things I've heard about him from parents whose kids have played for him, I would want my own answers, I would want to look him in the eye and trust my instincts. Because I would never want to expose a child to the hockey life he grew up in. I've seen the damage that can be done to a family, and I wouldn't wish for anyone to ever experience that again."
Keefe said he understands why some may feel that way about him. "I wouldn't consider taking on such a role in hockey if I wasn't willing to spend time to put people at ease if that's what they need," Keefe said. "I estimate I've coached over 200 players, and I would provide the names and phone numbers of every one of their parents to even my harshest critics."
Keefe said one of the things he treasures most is a scrapbook full of letters from Pembroke players and parents he received at the City of Pembroke celebration.
"It's a reminder of how much things have changed," he said. "It makes me feel good about the mark I've left on people's lives, one at a time. Ultimately, I can say whatever I want, but it's all irrelevant. The people I encounter, the experiences they have with me, determine whether I'm worthy. That's all I can control now."
Keefe's thankful to be in a position to get the opportunity. He's even a little thankful, in a manner of speaking, to Frost.
"He's legitimately left me alone for these many years and stayed out of my life," Keefe said. "I'm grateful he's allowed me to live my life with no intrusions."
But what if? What if, one day, David Frost shows up at an OHL game being coached by Sheldon Keefe?
"I think about that sometimes—not a lot, but once in a while," Keefe said. "In one sense, it wouldn't change anything. I don't have a relationship with him. That part is never going to change. But I would hope we let sleeping dogs lie. He's living his life, I'm living mine."
If it should happen that all is not as it seems in Keefe's new and improved world, it's obvious who stands to lose the most.
"A lot of things in my life would fall apart if Frost were back in the picture, and my marriage is one of them," Keefe said. "My wife doesn't understand the whole hockey culture, but I've explained enough of what went on for her to know it wasn't a good time in my life. Everything in my life that means something to me—my marriage, my kids, my parents, my career—would go totally south if things went back to the way they were. That can never happen. I've got two sons,
and if they ever want to know about my life growing up, there's plenty of documentation out there for them on that. But I'm hoping they will see me as I am, as someone who moved on to better things, and be proud of their dad.
"I know some people believe [Frost] is still there, pulling strings, calling shots, but he's not. To my knowledge, in my eight seasons as a head coach, he's never seen me coach a game. To anybody who knows Dave, to think I would be giving an interview like this, talking about him like this, that could never happen."
The Professor likes to think he's ﬁnally ﬁgured things out. He's going about his business, living his life, doing the right things, he said, but also now doing them, maybe for the ﬁrst time, for all the right reasons. Keefe's considered a rising star in the coaching ranks, someone who could end up behind the bench of Canada's national junior team one day, or maybe even an NHL club. He's well aware that any new appointment he gets will require him to answer for his previous life all over again. He said he's never been better equipped to do so.
"When I played, I only wanted to prove people wrong," Keefe said. "I was small, I was the outcast. I was a bad teammate and won an OHL scoring title and championship. My motivation was always about proving people wrong. And even when I ﬁrst started coaching, I was still doing that. I was the outcast who was proving I could succeed on my own, still trying to prove people wrong. But these last few years, I no longer care about proving people wrong. I'm more into proving people right. I have a lot of people in my corner now, a lot of people I have a positive relationship with, people who have gone out on a limb for me, helped me to get where I am. I am working now to reward their faith in me.
"I know there were a lot of days I used to wake up and I would constantly think about the way things were in my life. I would wonder, ‘What is David Frost thinking [about me]? What is he saying [about me]? What is the media perception [about me]?' Now, I have next to no days when any of that enters my mind. I wake up in the morning, I kiss my wife, I hug my kids, I take my son to preschool, I go coach hockey for a living and I just be me."
Well, in October 2013, Keefe retweeted a message from a motivational/inspirational Twitter account. It read as follows: "No regrets. Just lessons learned. Accept your past with no regrets, handle your present with conﬁdence, and face your future with no fear."
Words to live by for Sheldon Keefe.
Excerpt from Hockey Confidential ©2014. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.