KEVIN DINEEN, ICE HOCKEY
WOMEN’S PRELIMINARY ROUND VS. SWITZERLAND: FEB. 8, 17:00 EST
When I finally get my five minutes alone with head coach Kevin Dineen, it’s a mere 31 days before the national women’s hockey team will compete in their first game — against Switzerland — at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. The timing seems excruciatingly tight, especially when you consider that just 23 days earlier Dineen was announced as head coach of the team. After the unexpected departure of Dan Church, Team Canada’s previous front man, former NHL pro Dineen quickly stepped in to take on the enormous task of leading the team to Russia. The hope is that the women will bring home their third consecutive gold after winning the title in both Vancouver and Turin. With almost no professional experience coaching women and less than a month to go before the Games, the question on everyone’s lips is: will Dineen be able to pull it off?
It’s just after lunch when I speak to him over the phone in Calgary. The women have just finished up their pre-game skate before the evening’s midget series match against the Lethbridge Midget AAA Hurricanes. Despite the timing, Dineen sounds calm and makes easy conversation. Before I can even begin to ramble into my questions, he asks me how my day is going and if I’m managing to keep warm through Toronto’s polar vortex. This good-natured attitude, I come to learn, is what makes Dineen such a good fit for the last-minute sub in. With two teenaged daughters, he knows a thing or two about working with women.
“I’m finding there’s a lot more give and take, you know. It’s more of a two-way conversation than you get when coaching men,” he tells me of the adjustments he’s been making over the last few weeks.
The Dineens have long been a hockey family. When Kevin was young, his father, Bill Dineen, was finishing out his playing career in the minor leagues after a five-season stint in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings — where he brought home two Stanley Cups. Though Kevin was born in Quebec City, the family eventually settled in a quiet neighbourhood in north Toronto. With four brothers and a professional hockey-playing dad, it’s no wonder that Kevin and two of his brothers (Gord and Peter) ended up playing in the NHL, with the other two in the minor leagues. For high school, Dineen commuted daily downtown to St. Michael’s College School for boys.
“I still remember the journey into the city,” he says with a laugh. “First I had to take the bus down to the subway to get downtown, and then I would hop on the streetcar to get to school.”
Playing junior “B” hockey with the St. Michael’s Buzzers, he recalls how he and his friends used to get together with the Upper Canada College boys and sneak down to Maple Leaf Gardens to watch the teams do their pre-game skates.
“It was a pretty neat deal to be able to go down and see real NHLers,” he recalls, “especially since most of our other time was taken up on the ice or with school work.”
Dineen left Toronto for college, heading to the Centennial State to play for the University of Denver. It didn’t take long before he was drafted, at age 21, to play for the Hartford Whalers in Connecticut. He spent eight seasons with the Whalers before being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in 1991 — where his father was head coach, at the time. He spent 14 more seasons in the NHL playing again for the Hartford Whalers as well as the Carolina Hurricanes, Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets.
Admittedly, hockey has taken Dineen all over the world over the last three decades, but regardless of where he was based, Toronto has always held a place in his heart.
“I have some great friends I like to catch up with whenever I’m back in Toronto,” he remarks. “I often get together with Eric Lindros, who lived with my wife and me when he was a rookie in Philly. Any time I’m in town, we grab lunch by his house in Rosedale,” he tells me, of the retired NHL mega-star and former Maple Leaf.
Retiring as a player in 2003, Dineen took a bit of a breather before switching his focus to coaching in 2005, first in the minor leagues and then with the Florida Panthers. After a disappointing first half of his third season with the Panthers, Dineen was fired on Nov. 8 — just over a month before he was picked up by Hockey Canada.
Of the dismissal, Dineen told the Toronto Star: “You end up getting fired and you go through a range of emotions. Sometimes things happen for a reason. I think this may be my reason.”
Dineen had been in touch with Hockey Canada after his dismissal in Florida about coaching the men’s world championship team in April but was instead offered the position to coach the women’s Olympic team.
Sochi will not be the first Olympic Games for Dineen. He competed with Team Canada back in 1984 in Sarajevo, narrowly missing the podium when placing fourth.
“The game has changed so much,” he recalls nostalgically. “I mean, the players have gotten bigger and have different sticks, but many of the experiences I went through as a 20-year-old are similar to what these girls are going through right now.”
Dineen has been helping the women get through their last few pre–Olympic Games in Calgary before they head to Austria for a 10-day training camp.
“The camp is going to be a real great team-building time for us, and boy, that’s going to be the real key going into Sochi,” he says.