Last week, as everyone saw coming and now everyone is aware of, the Toronto Maple Leafs finally whacked Mike Babcock after a tepid start to the season, as well as because his mostly younger players absolutely hated his guts. Since then, in true after-the-fact bus tossing fashion, plenty of stories have come out about how Babcock ruled with an iron fist and was out of touch with the modern generation of players. And while all of those stories are absolutely to be believed, it’s burying the lede on what should be the real story here, and that’s the rapid ascension of Babs’ successor, Sheldon Keefe.
Please be advised, that while the specifics remain vague, the rest of this article will discuss sexual abuse and all applicable warnings may apply.
If the name Sheldon Keefe sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Keefe was a notorious delinquent even in junior, when as captain of the OHL champion Barrie Colts in 2000, he famously refused to shake the hand of then-commissioner David Branch, as well as staged a walkout during an awards banquet, and threatened future Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards. All of this was under the manipulation of Coach David Frost, who had several run ins with the OHL himself, and even had an assistant smuggle a player into the country and was ultimately fined $25,000. Frost’s name should ring a bell too, as he was the target of a murder for hire plot from one of his former players Mike Danton/Mike Jefferson, who had accused Frost of sexual assault as a motive for his actions. Danton and Keefe were teammates and friends, having played hockey together from an early age. And at Frost’s trial, Keefe provided testimony as Frost’s alibi witness.
After only 125 NHL games, Keefe’s NHL playing career ended, and began coaching the Pembroke Lumber Kings, a Junior A team he’d purchased, which is a level below the Canadian Major Junior leagues of the CHL (Ontario, Quebec, Western leagues) that most are familiar with. Keefe allowed Frost to even lurk around the periphery of his junior team even in the midst of all of the accusations. But, given his success at that level, it led him to a job with a major junior club, the Soo Greyhounds, hired by their child GM, Kyle Dubas. And it was there, and under Keefe’s watch, that three of his players were charged with sexual assault, Andrew Fritsch, Mark Petaccio, and current NHL-er Nick Cousins. As many, but not enough people have noted, that in the aftermath of the investigation (which was dropped by Canadian investigators given the unliklihood of a conviction, which is what oddly enough always seems to happen in cases like this), Dubas was famously flippant in his comments, and even went so far as to claim that his players were victims too:
“But as the manager of a junior hockey club, you’re entrusted with the lives of 16-20-year-olds,” said Dubas, who’s now completed two seasons in his present position. “We don’t judge how we went about things. We would never look back and say that we’re pleased or not. We just wanted to handle things the best we could. We supported the players as best we could with what they needed off the ice.”
“From the beginning, our team supported the legal process and law enforcement as they performed their investigation,” he added. “The scars remain for all of the people involved. But unfortunately there’s nothing we can do about that.”
That language flatly shows zero concern for the victim in this case, and even goes so far as to paint his already shitty, entitled players as victims themselves in this scenario. It’s an all too familiar refrain within the self perpetuating rape culture of the Athletic Industrial Complex, and is particularly rampant in junior hockey, which puts children as young as 14 at center stage even more than high school football in Texas does with its frequently maladjusted young athletes. It preaches entitlement and it breeds behavior like this.
And now that Keefe has ascended to the Leafs’ head coach after a stint (and a championship) in the AHL with Toronto’s affiliate Marlies, it’s behavior like this that deserves much closer scrutiny. While many were praising Dubas’ hire of Hayley Wickenhiser last summer in a player development role as a progressive and forward thinking move for a hockey organization, in the face of Keefe’s promotion it simply feels like window dressing, a bone to be thrown to the masses to chew on while all of this seedy behavior gets ignored and enabled. Dubas may look the part of the boy genius, right down to glinting smile and faux-nerd glasses, but make no mistake, he absolutely does not give a shit about any kind of actual progressivism as evidenced by his words and actions when pressed, and also by bringing on Sheldon Keefe and all his baggage at any point possible. He clearly only needs the appearance of it, and if the league or sport as a whole actually gave a shit about any of this, they’d call him on it repeatedly. But they’re too concerned if Mike Babcock made his rookies make ranked lists of the most hard working teammates, and if Keefe actually wins with this talented group on the ice, all of this will be shouted down from everyone in Canada anyway.