Kevin Dineen’s surreal journey from NHL disgrace to Olympic gold

Kevin Dineen’s surreal journey from NHL disgrace to Olympic gold

SOCHI, Russia – After watching Canada’s women win Olympic gold on Thursday, all I wanted to do was climb in a DeLorean (and/or a TARDIS, depending on your pop culture time travel reference point) and hurtle back to the halcyon days of 1984.

I wanted to walk into the Hartford Whalers locker room, calmly explain I’m from 30 years into the future, and then relay the following information:

That scrappy goal-scoring rink rat on your team named Kevin Dineen? Yeah, he’s going to win an Olympic gold medal. As a coach. Of a women’s hockey team, which is an actual thing in the future. Oh, and it’ll happen a few months after he was fired by an NHL team. Based in Florida. Which, again, is an actual thing in the future.

I imagine there would be giggly disbelief and copious amounts of chirping. Because Kevin Dineen was, and is, an unlikely candidate to lead Canada’s women’s national team to Olympic gold … and yet there he was on Thursday night, celebrating with his team after their miraculous rally against the Americans, 3-2 in overtime.

What does a gold medal-winning locker room look like?

“Smokey,” said Dineen, referring to the cigars and beer celebration the Canadian women smarty left off the ice this time this time.

There’s a certain “A League Of Their Own” aesthetic to Dineen coaching this team: The grizzled vet with the weathered face, leading the fresh-faced women after his pro coaching career hit a bump.

Only instead of Tom Hanks teaching Madonna how to catch a fly ball, Dineen was coaching the most accomplished women’s team in the history of hockey. One that captured its fourth straight gold medal and won its 20th consecutive Olympic game on Thursday night.

“I’m a big believer that when you’re a coach and you have talent and good character, you can have a lot of special things happen. That was a special night,” he said.

As a player, Dineen never won a gold medal. Not with Canada in the 1984 Winter Games. Not in three world championships appearances. He was successful but never a star, a rugged blue-collar scorer that made up for average size with unwavering drive. Dineen was the epitome of the coach’s son aesthetic: His father, Bill, was head man with the Houston Aeros of the WHL from 1972-78, then the New England Whatlers and then the Philadelphia Flyers from 1991-93, where he coached Kevin Dineen.

So coaching was in Kevin Dineen’s DNA. He retired from the NHL in 2002 as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and was named the head coach of the Portland Pirates of the AHL three years later. He was there until 2011, making the playoffs in all but one season. The Florida Panthers came calling with a coaching vacancy, and Dineen took it.

He found instant success: The team’s first Southeast Division title and first trip to the playoffs in over a decade. But a fifth place finish in an injury-laden season followed; he was fired by the Panthers 16 games into the 2013-14 season, having won just three of them.

"I was sad, mad, the range of emotions that you go through in that situation, which I think is just human nature," Dineen sold the Hartford Courant in January. “I spent a little time fishing in the Keys out on the flats. I don't think it's my makeup to take too much time off."

So he called Bob Nicholson, head of Hockey Canada, and asked for a job. His aim was to be part of the nation’s entry in the IIHF world championships.

The offer from Team Canada was … a little different.

"He asked me if I was sitting down," Dineen relayed to the Courant. "He wanted to know if I would be interested in the women's Olympic job. I said, 'Absolutely.'"

Dan Church had been the coach of the women’s team until December, a scant two months before the Sochi Games. He resigned – abruptly for the public, understandably from the players’ perspective – citing a lack of faith from unnamed critics that he could win gold.

Dineen was hired on Dec. 17; two months and three days after that, he was wearing Olympic gold.

“As I told my players before the game, the first time I met with them, I couldn’t wait to get on the ice with them. In the last two months, I think I’ve become better at what I’ve done,” he said.

Dineen is an assertive coach, and it was evident that wasn’t going to change with the Canadian women. He shocked the hockey world by effectively stripping star forward Hayley Wickenheiser of the captaincy, handing it to three-time gold medalist Caroline Ouellette. “I guess I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt,” said Wickenheiser, the team’s all-time leader in games, goals and assists.

Yet in the Sochi tournament, Wickenheiser was instrumental in helping Canada to victories against the Americans – with a multi-point game in the preliminaries and with that breakaway in OT in the gold medal game, drawing a penalty that led to Marie-Phillip Poulin’s golden goal.

Did Dineen have to mend his relationship with Wickenheiser?

“I didn’t do any resolving. I made a decision that I thought was best for the team. It definitely had some sting for Hayley, but all I can do at the end of it is explain to Hayley why I make my decisions. Add some transparency to what is best for the team. She gets it. And that’s why she’s a special player,” he said.

He pushed his star like he pushed his team, mentally and physically. In the end, it may have been the difference between gold and silver, as the Canadians looked more confident and refreshed in overtime.

“For the last eight months, we probably beat this death a little bit, but we really exhausted them. Put them in situations where they were in a disadvantage going into games because of the training they were doing off the ice. We talked about that paying off,” he said.

“To me, it’s been a really easy job because of the veteran leadership that we have. They never say die. They really pushed. They earned that first and second goal.”

And, eventually, their third. Poulin’s OT winner came on a power play. The initial plan was to use a play Dineen had used before to score against the Americans.

“We played the U.S. in Minnesota in late December. It was one of my first games. I was actually trying to put that play together again. There was a little bit of an audible thrown in there. They got the puck on the right stick. Poo finds a way to get herself in a scoring position,” he said.

“Poo” scored. Canada celebrated. Dineen’s odd journey was complete.

To say the last two months of Kevin Dineen’s life have been surreal would be an insult to understatement. An unemployed NHL coach, fired because his team couldn’t win, hired by Hockey Canada to coach a team that can’t lose.

“Sometimes a door closes, another one opens. I don’t know how that all works out. I haven’t read the manual on where I go from here,” he said during his postgame press conference. “It’s a little bit of a left turn to take on this job.”

U.S. Coach Katey Stone was seated next him. She won silver. Dineen won gold.

“I think you took a right turn, not a left turn,” Stone quipped.