After 33 seasons in pro ranks, Johnstown native Dana Heinze steps away from Penguins, hockey

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Jul. 6—Dana Heinze's passion for hockey took root on Luzerne Street Extension in Westmont Borough when he'd spend hours backstopping street hockey games.

That love allowed the Westmont Hilltop graduate opportunities to work in the sport for 33 seasons as an equipment manager at varying levels of professional hockey, with the past 16 seasons spent on the staff of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

On Tuesday, the organization announced that Heinze has called it a career, ending a journey that saw him play a behind-the-scenes role for four Stanley Cup winners while also taking part in Winter Classics, Stadium Series games and the NHL All-Star Game.

As Heinze, a 2018 inductee to the Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame, said Tuesday evening, the call wasn't a snap decision, but one that he had taken time to consider.

"It's been something that I've been pondering for a little while," Heinze said. "I've been in hockey since 1988 — and it's 2022. I've had a great, blessed, long career. I've been so fortunate to be around so many great athletes and people, coaches, general managers, staffs and getting to know equipment managers and trainers from other teams. It's been a long, strange trip, but at the end of the day, I look back in the mirror and say, 'You know what? I've have a good career. What more at this point in my can I accomplish?' I think it's time to take a step back and become a full-time husband."

Stepping away from the game gives the 54-year-old Heinze a chance to share in experiences with his wife, Kathy, noting that the couple hadn't been able to go on vacations or even a honeymoon during his time in hockey.

"I don't know if it's going to be a honeymoon, but I think we've talked about taking a cross-country train trip," he said. "An Amtrak ride from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Chicago to California and then rent a car.

"In my career, I've been all over the place. I've seen so many cool things and have been a part of a lot of neat stuff. I want to share those experiences with my wife. I think that's something we can do."

Heinze also said that heading to New England during autumn as the leaves change color is a possible destination.

"Things like that will be good for Kathy and I," Heinze said. "Because we haven't done things that we've wanted to do because of my job. I don't mean that in a negative way, it's just because of how busy and how much time we do spend at the rink. There's a lot of moving parts working in hockey. I'm happy to do what I did."

Heinze will be honored by the franchise that he spent 16 seasons with at a yet-to-be-announced home game during the upcoming 2022-23 season. He joined the organization prior to the 2006-07 season, the first of the Penguins' current run of 16 consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Prior to the start of this past season, Heinze switched his role to become an assistant on the equipment staff with Jon Taglianetti taking over the top spot.

'We were professional'

Heinze took his first steps in the pro game serving as the equipment manager of the Johnstown Chiefs from 1988-92 and 1995-99, sandwiching a stint as an assistant equipment manager with the New Jersey Devils.

Those first steps in Johnstown were made possible when the then-fledgling Chiefs were building a staff on the bench and in the locker room.

"When I had the opportunity to join the Johnstown Chiefs in in 1988. I met (former Chiefs General Manager) John Daley in Ziggy's pro shop. (Dave) "Ziggy" (Ziegler) introduced me to John, and he said, 'Listen, our new head coach is Steve Carlson. He was with the Baltimore Skipjacks and he was getting ready to come to Johnstown.' He was going to be named coach of the Johnstown Chiefs. I called Steve and that's how I got my job rolling in 1988 with the Chiefs. That was amazing."

While the new East Coast Hockey League was working to establish itself as a viable professional option, the attitude with the Chiefs from the start was to make things as top-notch as possible.

"It was a brand-new league. It was like the wild west for sure," Heinze recalled. "We were professional. Steve taught me a lot of things about how to be professional ... At that time, the ECHL that was the lowest level of (professional) hockey there was. We didn't look at it in a negative light. We tried to do the best that we possibly could for those players who were playing for our team. We wanted it to be as professional as possible, and I think we pulled it off. It was a good building block for my career."

After his second tenure with the Chiefs, Heinze latched on with the Detroit Vipers of the former International League during the 1999-2000 season before earning a promotion to the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning, where he was part of the franchise's 2004 Stanley Cup winner.

Heinze joined the Penguins for the 2006-07 season, taking the post of head equipment manager, which he held until this past season. Heinze, and fellow Johnstown native Chris Stewart, the Penguins' head athletic trainer, were a part of the franchise's Stanley Cup runs in 2009, 2016 and 2017.

Through his time and numerous stops in the role, Heinze made it his mission to make every locker room feel like home, regardless of the address.

"When I was in the East Coast league, I would dress up our locker rooms on the road as well," he said. "For a long time, I know people would make fun of me and not understand why I was doing that extra work. I just wanted to make our visiting locker room as homey as possible. It was just kind of a thing that I enjoyed doing.

"Looking back now, there's a lot of teams that have copied that. They might travel with a logo rug or with team logo magnets or signs of their own. It's sort of like I was a trendsetter. I didn't do that on purpose to say, 'Oh hey, look what I'm doing. I'm something special.' I just really enjoyed making our space our space. Does it win games? Not really, but it puts you in a nice environment."

It also allowed Heinze to tap into an artistic side of his brain while working.

"I never looked at how nice a visiting locker room was," Heinze said. "I always looked at it as an open canvas that you can dress up and make your own place. That's what I did. I had a lot of fun, and I'm really proud of what I did."

Heinze's penchant to be very attentive to detail, which he credits former Devils GM Lou Lamiorello for instilling in him during his time in New Jersey, also allowed the Johnstown native to form a bond with Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, who is very regimented in his approach to game preparation and routine.

It also led to a difficult moment for Heinze when he decided to step away.

"It was a tough conversation to have," Heinze said. "I didn't want to let Sid down because I was leaving, but he's going to be in good hands with the guys who are there now. He'll be OK. He's one of the best players in the world.

"I'm very fortunate and lucky to call him a friend along with a number of other great players that I've been associated with."

Wherever his travels took him, Heinze always kept Johnstown on his mind and in his heart. It was the right thing to do. according to Heinze, who has his No. 30 from his time with the Westmont Hilltop retired at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial, where he was also honored with a locker room bearing his name during the city's Hockeyville USA celebration in 2015 where the Penguins played the Tampa Bay Lightning in a preseason game at the historic building.

"Growing up in Johnstown, I know sometimes it gets a bad rap, but I never looked at it that way," he said. "That's my hometown. That's where I grew up. That's where I was taught. How I was shaped by my parents (Judy and Louis Heinze). Eventually, a block away falling in love with my wife. I'm always trying to be a Johnstown supporter.

"I always had a hard time when people wanted to put me in the spotlight, because that's not really who I am. I'm a behind-the-scenes guy, but when you reach your goal and you're working in the NHL, people are going to notice and know who you are. I kind of shied away from that."

Another hockey figure who had experienced Johnstown during his career convinced Heinze to accept the pride that his hometown had for him.

"Eddie Johnston, one time, said to me when I was struggling with doing interviews, 'You know, Dana. I used to play for the Johnstown Jets back in the 1960s, I lived in Johnstown for that year,' " Heinze recalled. "He said, 'Let me just say one thing. The people of Johnstown are proud of you, and you're from Johnstown and you should embrace that.' That was a great message and a great thing I learned from (Johnston)."

Shawn Curtis is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5085. Follow him on Twitter @shawncurtis430.