Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs

Returning from his bout with COVID-19, Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after practice on Tuesday to discuss his experience over the last few weeks, the team’s mentality during the recent COVID-induced adversity, integrating the returning players and getting back up to speed, and preparing for the Jan. 1 game versus Ottawa.

What have the last 10 days been like for you? What were you thinking as you stepped back on the ice today?

Keefe: It was a pretty quiet 10 days. Of the 10, I probably had five or so that were pretty tough days. The last little bit has just been about using the time to recharge and recover.

Today, I was just really happy to be back with the group again and on the ice. It has been different, but it has been unique and good in its own way: keeping a distance and monitoring things, communicating with the coaches, and watching practices remotely through our live stream. I had that experience, but it is certainly nice to be back in the mix today.

It sounds like COVID-19 hit you hard?

Keefe: To the point that you really don’t want to do a whole lot other than rest and recover. I would say I had a good four days of some flu-like symptoms there. I got through that. It was just more head cold-type stuff from there. I wouldn’t say it was too serious, but it certainly wasn’t comfortable all the way through it.

As you go through that, how difficult is it to take the coach’s hat off? Where were you able to balance the focus on rest and also trying to be ready for what lies ahead?

Keefe: It became pretty easy fairly quickly. When I was told I was positive initially, I almost didn’t believe it or want to believe it because I felt okay at that time. We were preparing to play against Vancouver that night. I felt fine to do so. I was a little bit surprised I was positive at that time.

Within the next 24 hours after that, our team doctor and medical director here, Dr. Noah Forman, had told me to forget about being coach of the Leafs for a period of time and worry about myself and getting better. It is easier said than done, but it hit me hard enough to the point where you are really just focused on getting better and resting.

From that side of it — and the fact that we had no hockey to prepare for — it made it a little bit easier. Certainly, over the last number of days now that we have been ramping back up and getting players back in the building and holding practices to prepare for, I was able to do my part from a distance. I am fortunate that we have great staff that can pick up the slack.

You mentioned back in Vancouver wanting to get home for the holidays. There was already a wave going around the league. Kyle Dubas told us the story about how difficult it was getting home. Did it run through your mind at all in addition to the other concerns you were dealing with?

Keefe: Those concerns were there for sure. They were put at ease pretty quickly just with Kyle reassuring us they were going to do everything in their power to get us home safely and quickly. We had a little bit of a hiccup there with it. I heard about some other stories around the league about teams that had found ways to get players home. I felt confident it was going to be able to happen. We just had to be patient.

As it turned out, a little bit of a delay in staying in Vancouver ended up being a pretty good thing. That was probably where most of us were the sickest. We were certainly happy to get home. Traveling home on a red eye was not the easiest in terms of getting your sleep. We were definitely happy to be able to get back, be out of the hotel, and back in familiar territory.

While isolating, did you have to physically remove yourself from your family?

Keefe: In my case, I did go home. While we were away for the eight or nine days while we were out west, one of my kids actually tested positive as well. We are not sure if it was from school or his own hockey team, where there were cases. My family was already kind of in isolation inside our house as it was. I went into that environment and we were able to be together but separate in isolation.

It was definitely different and unique. We found our way through it as a family. We were able to spend Christmas together. Still falling within that window, we were wearing masks inside our own home, which felt a little bit strange, but those are the times we are living in here.

We are happy now that my son and I are through it. My son had no symptoms. My wife and older son seem like they have gotten through it here and have stayed negative. We are happy about that.

You have a few days to practice now and get back into a groove. You were coming off of a period where the team was playing so well. What is the challenge now of trying to get back to that point, particularly when you might not have all of your core players at hand?

Keefe: It is a challenge for sure, one that a number of teams are dealing with around the league. It seems like forever ago that we played against Edmonton and played a really strong game and got a good road win. It felt like we were setting ourselves up for a good road trip. No action since then.

At that time, we had talked about the Calgary game being postponed and it providing us with the opportunity to get back-to-back practice days in Vancouver for the first time in the entire season. As it turns out, the second practice ended up getting canceled and the game got postponed. We haven’t really been at it since save for these last couple of days. We are now just trying to find what is best for the players and what they need.

We are not thinking too much about what we have done up to this point because I think this is so unique.  Talking to some of the players that were coming out of 10 days in quarantine and then stepping on the ice for the first time, a lot of the comments were saying that it felt worse than the first day of training camp. At least when you are going into training camp, you have been on the ice every day ramping up towards that. Going from isolation to stepping on the ice and going into an NHL practice is a challenge.

Now that we are three days through it here for most of the players, they’re back to feeling good. We felt confident that they would get it back quickly. It was just going to be a rough time for them.

Now we have the challenge… using today as an example, with Brodie, Dermott, Campbell, it is day one for them despite it being day three for many others and day two for Spezza and Simmonds. We are going to have more guys that will come back later in the week, so we have to find ways to get them up to speed and put them in positions to succeed in terms of ramping back up at a time when the rest of the group is already there. We have to manage that in terms of the individuals.

Certainly, the expectation is that we are going to take an off-day tomorrow for those that have skated three days in a row. We’ll come back and get those back-to-back practices again before January 1st.

We like the way that sets up, but we know how we want to play and how we need to play as a team and what we have been successful with. We just have to make sure we are intelligent about how we get our players back to that point. We have more than enough time to do it.

How do you want to make use of this week before the next game?

Keefe: We have spent these last three days with the focus really on getting the guys back going again. We have dropped in a little bit of structure here and there. Yesterday, we had a bit of a five-on-five scrimmage for a short period of time just to get them in the feel of playing with nine other players out there.

It is really just about getting them back up to speed and getting their bodies feeling good again. We have some guys that have felt excellent now after three days. Talking to Dermott, Brodie, and the guys coming back for their first day, it is a tough day for them out there. Spezza yesterday was the same thing, and [Simmonds].

We purposely made Jack Campbell’s day shorter here today to make sure that we didn’t give him too much too soon. It was a good day for him that way.

Really, these three days were about getting guys up to speed. We are going to take tomorrow off for the majority of the group that has been skating as much as they have this week. That will give us two days to really focus on getting back and ready to play games again.

That is really how we have approached it. I like the way that it sets up. Decisions are made for various reasons — not all to do with our team — but the fact that these games have been postponed this week really sets things up well for the majority of our players in terms of them having ample time to come back safely and be prepared.

Kyle Dubas said he felt the group was maybe a little bit on edge after the cancelations and everyone testing positive. What is the mood like now that more players are coming back and the team is getting back into a rhythm? 

Keefe: I feel like the vibe is good in that guys are really just happy to be back together again. I think they are put a little bit more at ease now that we have had so many players and staff that have gone through it and returned or players that are going to come back here in short order.

There is a little bit of peace of mind that, even if they didn’t test positive, we are maybe through a window of time now where you feel like you might be in the clear. Our players and staff have done a good job. It has been difficult because it’s Christmas and it is so important to spend time with your family, but the guys have been smart. They are on edge and on guard about what is going on around them.

They have done their part that way. Obviously, for myself, I got sick and I was uncomfortable for a period of time, but for those of us in the traveling group who were not positive, I am sure there is a lot of anxiety that goes along with that. You are waiting for a “When is my turn?” kind of thing. That in and of itself is uncomfortable.

It is not an easy time for anybody with what we have been through as a group. We were very fortunate. It has been about a year, really, where we went with no cases at all within our organization. Now it has hit us here like it has so many other teams. I am happy with how we have come out of it.

We have received terrific care in terms of the advice we have been given and the guidance we have been given. How things have been coordinated by our medical team has been top-notch, as we have come to expect. It gives me confidence we are going to continue to come out of this well.