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Sheldon Keefe Shouts Out Flyers Coach, Embraces New Rivalry

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Sheldon Keefe is introduced as the New Jersey Devils' head coach. (Photo: AP)

The New Jersey Devils officially announced former Toronto Maple Leafs bench boss Sheldon Keefe as their new head coach on Tuesday afternoon, a day full of pleasantries and warm welcomes alongside a little bit of info on the vetting process. Officially embarking on his second journey as an NHL head coach, Keefe made sure to express his gratitude for a certain John Tortorella, who now commands the Philadelphia Flyers.

For those who might not know this already, Keefe was once a top draft pick of and briefly played for the Tampa Bay Lightning, with his NHL career spanning from 2000 to 2003. It was in Tampa Bay that Keefe played under Tortorella, who was just getting his start as an NHL head coach.

The two have coached against each other in the past, including in a Stanley Cup playoffs matchup between Tortorella’s Columbus Blue Jackets and Keefe’s Maple Leafs, but the two will do battle as Metropolitan Division rivals for the first time.

For the freshly anointed Devils coach, it’s a full-circle moment of sorts.

“So, what are you gonna do to create your foundation and your core values as a coach? And then you lean on your experiences as a player to do that initially,” Keefe said, reflecting on his journey as an NHL head coach thus far. “My time spent with John Tortorella in the Tampa Bay organization really set the foundation for me as a coach. I learned a tremendous amount from him that I apply to coaching. It was through the experience of being part of an organization that was trying to raise the standard, when Torts came in, and went through some difficult times, both as a team and with some individuals. Some of the best players that were young and trying to grow were challenged by Torts on a daily basis to raise their standard.”

Many Flyers fans and pundits initially saw Tortorella as a bad fit for the rebuilding Flyers, citing his stern, disciplinarian approach as something that doesn’t resonate with young players. In addition, Tortorella’s age (he’ll turn 66 on June 24, just days before the 2024 NHL Draft) was another knock against the veteran coach. How could a coach with so much experience switch gears and start anew with the young Flyers?

Whatever you do once, you can do twice, as they say.

“Ultimately, the team got to the point where it was too good for me to play on it anymore, but they won the Stanley Cup in 2004,” Keefe said, speaking on his experiences with Tortorella and the Lightning. “And while I wasn’t there, I was a part of that process of the team improving, seeing Torts do his work on a daily basis and how he challenged the group. It was not easy. It was not comfortable, but ultimately got to win.”

“That process really showed me what’s required, in terms of creating, at times, uncomfortable situations, but showing love and commitment to your players at the same time knowing that you’re in it for their best interests and you’re in it ultimately for the best interests of the team,” Keefe added. “Seeing Torts at work, that really set that up for me. When I started coaching in the NHL I had an opportunity to thank him for that. He’s been incredibly gracious with his time since I’ve been in the NHL. He may not be as gracious anymore now that I’m in the division, but, that’s really where it started for me.”

Tortorella still has many doubters amongst the Flyers fanbase, but it’s hard to deny the impact he’s had across the hockey world during his two decades in the NHL.

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