My yearly conversation with Leafs coaches, from Burns to Quinn to Keefe

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has made a good impression with our Steve Simmons. GETTY IMAGES

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has made a good impression with our Steve Simmons. GETTY IMAGES

Steve Simmons JD’s fave of all time!

My personal tradition, much as it has been, started in Toronto with Pat Burns in 1992. I spent an hour with the first-year coach of the Maple Leafs back then, just before training camp began.

At the time it was to get a sense of who Burns was and what he thought of the pending Leafs season.

Burns was different in his office, more so than he was just about everywhere else. A little more relaxed. A lot more honest.

He was often outspoken — more outspoken off the record than on — never shy about letting you know exactly what he felt about his team, his players, the environment, any hockey question you would ask him.

If he didn’t like you, or what you wrote about him or his team, you would find out rather quickly. He was like a school-yard kid that way. You could punch him in the stomach one day. The next, you were friends again.

Pat Quinn was much more leery of reporters asking questions. He didn’t want to give you the answer as much as he would try to figure out why and what you were asking. His answers, though, were monumental — almost always thoughtful and certainly well-spoken. Almost always lettings you know, occasionally gently, that he knew far more about the subject than you did.

Quinn was the best interview I’ve seen on a daily basis who truly disliked being interviewed. It was years later, outside the church after Peter Zezel’s funeral, three years after the Leafs had foolishly fired him, that the big man approached me and actually apologised.

He wanted to let me, and the others who were around at the time, that he thought he treated the Toronto media poorly. He said he didn’t have to be so caustic. We told him that day that he was the master of his craft, that no one had ever done the daily dance as well as he had.

He appreciated that. We appreciated the apology.

Quinn was a good man and a good and unusual coach. Outside of one reporter with a penchant for wearing Hawaiian shirts, which rather amused Quinn, he didn’t care for most of us. But he did the daily work — and, for me, the pre-season chats — and, really, you couldn’t ask for anything more.

Ron Wilson was at his best away from the rink. For reasons I never completely understood, Wilson became combative and sarcastic and occasionally difficult when dealing with Toronto media. He would pick fights fairly regularly and it would continue for days.

But, in his office, where I would go at the beginning of most Leafs seasons, he would talk and talk and talk some more. He was delightful, open, intelligent and funny. I would think to myself, “If he was more this way to the public, more this way in doing his job, he wouldn’t be battling with just about everybody that was around him. There wouldn’t be the daily Wilson wars.”

Even at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, I saw a different side of Wilson. He invited me to the Athletes Village during the Games, where we did a story on him and a photographer shot him from a scenic pose with the beauty of Vancouver and the elegance of the mountains in the background. He talked a lot about being anonymous in the Village, how no one knew who he was, and how much he enjoyed blending in, which was about as far as you could get from being coach of the Leafs.

When he returned to Toronto after almost winning gold with Team USA, he returned to being Ron The Difficult. Maybe it was the only way he could be. But I wondered then just as I wonder now: Why was he so different in person than he was in public?

Randy Carlyle never wanted to meet in his office. He liked restaurants, mostly in Etobicoke, not far from his house. But no matter what you asked, he answered — fairly, honestly, occasionally outrageously. He should have owned this town. He had that kind of personality.

Mike Babcock closed down the pre-season talks, the mid-season talks, just about any talks. That was his choice when he came to Toronto. When the Leafs hired Babcock, I texted him and explained how my relationships with past Leafs coaches had worked. He didn’t care.

He didn’t want a relationship. He wanted to control the daily media briefing, all four minutes and 30 seconds of them. Babcock didn’t talk to you, he talked at you. But he was so good at it, we hardly complained.

He was also a touch dishonest about it. When he got hired, he told me there would be no off-the-record, no phone calls, no text messages, none of the modern ways of communicating with coaches. But there was a small group of those he did talk to, text with — all of it off the record. The notion he didn’t go off the record was nonsense. But, with Babcock, there was always some kind of subtext.

I don’t know what kind of coach Sheldon Keefe will be for the Leafs. It’s really too early to evaluate him. But I do know when I spoke to him for almost 50 minutes on Wednesday, my first one-on-one with a Leafs coach since Carlyle in 2014, he didn’t duck a question, he seemed to enjoy the back-and-forth of ranging vieszpoints, and had a certain confidence about everything he is doing with the Leafs.

Like Burns, he wanted to know what you think. He is different than Babcock, who was different than Quinn, who was different than Carlyle. But he has a clear vision, and any coach of substance needs that.

Quinn and Burns had some playoff success. Wilson, Carlyle and Babcock did not. And that, more than what he says or how he says it, will mark Keefe’s time as Maple Leafs coach.

He grew up here, understands the market, understands the enormity of the job, is honest and forthright. That’s a start.