Former Lumber Kings owner Sheldon Keefe reflects on the common bonds he shared with Bryan Murray and the advice he received from the hockey great
Sheldon Keefe (left), coach of the Toronto Marlies, had a chance to meet with Bryan Murray, Ottawa Senators general manager, during a slpit-squad exhibition game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Senators in Ottawa in September 2015.
Although Sheldon Keefe only met Bryan Murray face-to-face a handful of times, he will always remember his willingness to spend time answering questions when he needed it most.
The pair first met in Pembroke in October 2010 when Bryan Murray, former coach of the Pembroke Lumber Kings and then manager of the Ottawa Senators, was honoured with his induction to the Upper Ottawa Valley Sports Honour Roll during a dinner at the Germania Club. At the time, Keefe was in the midst of consecutive league championships as coach and general manager of the Lumber Kings and it would be at the end of that season when the Kings would go on to win the first national championship in the team's history.
It was after that championship the longest interaction between Keefe and Murray would occur.
Since Murray's passing earlier this month following a three-year battle with stage 4 colon cancer, Keefe has been reflecting on their interactions.
“I wouldn't describe our relationship as close, but it was impactful for me on a personal and professional level,” the current coach of the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies said during a telephone interview late last week.
“When I got the job in Sault Ste. Marie I called Bryan to thank him because if not for his time I don't know what would have been next for me,” he added.
That lasting impression made by Murray is the main reason Keefe felt so compelled to travel from Arizona to attend Murray's funeral in Shawville on Aug. 22. The similarities between the career paths is not lost on Keefe since Murray coached the Lumber Kings, after winning a national championship with the Rockland Nationals, the only other Central Junior Hockey League Team to achieve the milestone, their connections to the Ottawa Valley and Murray's path to coach major junior and in the AHL on the way to the NHL.
“With our personal connection to the Pembroke Lumber Kings, it was a privilege to make the trip and spend some time there,” he said.
Keefe explained after winning the RBC Cup, he began to wonder what was next for him in his coaching career. While in this contemplative phase he was able to connect with Murray, who invited him to his office in Ottawa for a meeting. While Keefe was expecting a brief meeting where Murray would answer a few questions, it turned into three hours sitting in his office where he was able to gain perspective on the game, where he was at in his career and what he needed to do to move forward as a coach.
“He shared his insight on the whole process – career coaching, climbing the ladder, insights on what he thought as a coach and as a man,” Keefe said.
What sticks with him most was Murray's willingness to spend that time, which Keefe still considers invaluable.
“It was really special for me in particular given some of things that had happened when I was a player,” he said. “It was the case that not many people at a high level in hockey had time for me.”
The relationship didn't end there. Keefe got Murray's cellphone number and when situations popped up in his life, he called upon Murray for guidance and that willingness to listen and offer advice was always there.
“He was there to answer questions and walk me through the process (for job interviews),” Keefe said. “It's simple, he was just there for me.”
Murray also recommended he connect with A.J. MacLean, son of former Senators' coach Paul MacLean, and Keefe is now going on his fifth season with MacLean as his assistant coach.
The connection between the two came full circle in September 2015 after he'd been hired by the Marlies when Keefe served as the assistant coach for a Toronto Maple Leafs split squad exhibition game against the Ottawa Senators at the Canadian Tire Centre. It was his first time coaching behind a professional bench which was symbolic given Murray's guidance in helping him get there. After the game he was able to meet with Murray and thank him in person.
Following the funeral service, Keefe had a chance to connect with many people, including some former Kings' players who played under Murray, and share stories about their connection to Murray. Seeing the number of people who attended the funeral from the community and all levels of the game from across North America was a testament to the impact Murray had on so many in the hockey world but also in his hometown of Shawville, which Murray never forgot, he said.
“As I listened to the eulogies there were so many stories that aligned with my experience,” Keefe said. “I know I am one of many, many people who is grateful to have had Bryan share his experience and wisdom with us.”
Since moving up the coaching ladder, Keefe has made himself available and taken the time to speak with up-and-coming coaches to offer advice. Upon reflection, he realized this is because of Murray's influence.
“When you've lived it and had people help you, you make yourself available and reach out to see if there is anything they might need,” he said. “So the message is if you need help ask, but if you are in a position to help make yourself available. I believe I have done that as I've moved up and would want to continue to do so. He left a lasting impression of what we should all strive to be.”
After spending the summer with his family, Keefe got back to work this week, returning to the Toronto area this past weekend. On Monday, it was announced he will oversee the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie team at an upcoming tournament. While the Marlies will not play in Ottawa this season, they will play the Belleville Senators on Dec. 1. This marks the first season Belleville will serve as the Ottawa Senators AHL affiliate.