By Aaron Bell
The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds have been making noise in the Western Conference during the past two months and a familiar face behind the bench has been primarily responsible for it.
The Greyhounds haven't lost two games in a row since an Eastern Conference road swing early in the New Year. They have won eight of their past 10 games and the only thing that has kept them from moving up the Western Conference standings is that the Kitchener Rangers and Guelph Storm have also been on solid runs of late.
A big part of the Greyhounds' turnaround has been the influence of coach Sheldon Keefe, who was brought in to replace Mike Stapleton in December.
The Greyhounds are 15-5-0-2 under Keefe's watch.
The former OHL rookie of the year helped the Barrie Colts win the OHL championship in 1999 and has brought a winning attitude to the Greyhounds' dressing room despite being a rookie all over again behind the bench.
Keefe was a second round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999 and played parts of three seasons in the NHL. He was just 23 when he bought the Tier II Pembroke Lumber Kings and turned his attention to helping that team when a knee injury sidelined his playing career. He led the Lumber Kings to a national championship in 2011.
"My playing days ended a lot sooner than I planned," Keefe told The Ottawa Sun last month. "Transitioning from player to coach was an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and create a true identity for myself."
Despite all of his success on the ice in the OHL, Keefe had a controversial career off the ice. He feels like he has stepped out of that cloud and into a fresh start with his coaching career.
"When I played in the OHL, I was very narrow-minded and very isolated," said Keefe. "The one thing I'm confident in is I never cheated the game when the puck dropped - that's how I was able to have success despite the other noise. But I was a very selfish person in terms of focusing on my own goals.
"You always hear the term, 'He's a great pro' - I was sort of the opposite. I'm not proud of my past. The qualities I have now are a result of what I've been through."
The Greyhounds still have a lot of Eastern Conference opponents to face this month but have a pair of head-to-head match-ups with both the Storm and Rangers before the regular season wraps up next month.
Keefe plans to maintain pressure on his group to keep their performance level up.
"I believe one of my real strengths as a coach is I can identify negative qualities pretty quickly," Keefe said. "A lot of it comes from personal experience, knowing the impact that allowing those type of behaviours to fester can have on a team."