It’s a scene straight out of a Mite practice or the first day of hockey school.
When Kevin Dineen hit the ice for his first practice as the head coach of the Canadian Women’s National Team he came face to face with a group of players with their names taped to the front of their helmets.
The hockey equivalent to the “Hello, My Name Is …” tags may have seemed like a joke, but given the circumstances surrounding his arrival, it was no laughing matter for a program that has won four of the first five Olympic gold medals.
In the heated battle for women’s hockey supremacy, change is not always considered to be a good thing. And a sudden change, such as the one that brought Dineen back to Hockey Canada, can potentially be catastrophic when it comes to their golden aspirations.
When Dan Church stepped down from his post of the Canadian Olympic Team on Dec. 12, it sent shockwaves through the women’s hockey world, and kicked the rumor mill into overdrive as fans speculated why a coach would leave a team in the homestretch of an Olympic run.
Even his own players were left searching for the reason why Church, who led Canada to the gold-medal at the 2012 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Burlington, Vt., would abruptly put an end to his three-year tenure as their head coach.
“We’d like to know a little more, but I don’t know if we need to know a little more at this point,” said Jayna Hefford, who will be competing in her fifth Olympics in Sochi.
The move certainly raised eyebrows in the U.S. Women’s National Team camp, but the coaching staff remains determined to focus on what they need to do to get ready for Sochi.
“I think everybody is surprised, but my take on it is that you just feel for all the people involved. I imagine that it can’t be easy,” said U.S. head coach Katey Stone. “But it doesn’t have anything to do with us. It’s not going to change how we train and we prepare and what we’re looking forward to accomplishing. At the end of the day it’s news but it goes away.”
The selection of Dineen to coach the Canadian women’s team seemingly came out of nowhere, but his credentials as a player and coach struck a winning chord with his players. Prior to launching a 19-year NHL career, Dineen was a member of the Canadian Olympic Team that finished fourth at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.
The Dineen name is well known throughout the hockey world. His father, Bill, was a long-time NHL player and the head coach of the Houston Aeros of the WHA for six seasons. His brother Gord played for the N.Y. Islanders during their glory days, and his brother Peter also played in the NHL.
Although Dineen was born in Canada, he spent much of his youth in the United States while his father played and coached professionally. He even spoke at the 2012 National Hockey Coaches Symposium in Washington, D.C.
While his family is excited for the opportunity, perhaps no one was more excited about the news than Dineen’s own daughters, Hannah and Emma.
“My family is all really excited, especially my two daughters who have called me more over the last four days than they have in a long time,” said Dineen, who coached his daughters’ select teams during his tenure as the head coach of the Portland Pirates. “They’re really enjoying it and they’ve had a chance to follow it on social media and get to know the personality of the players a little bit and I think that’s been fun for them and for me.”
While some of the younger players scrambled to do a Google search of their coach, several veteran players were thrilled to have such an established player and coach step in at the last minute.
“I love the fact that he played the game at the highest level and he’s coached the game at the highest level,” Hefford said. “He’s an Olympian and he has daughters who have played the game so he has a small understanding of the women’s game. And I love on the ice how engaged he is. He’s grabbing players and talking about little things that he’s learned throughout his career. That’s a huge advantage for us.”
Dineen knows that expectations are high anytime it involves the Maple Leaf, and his learning curve is incredibly steep, but he welcomes the challenge.
“You’re working with a complete new group and you’re getting to know their tendencies as players and as people, and that’s a challenge,” Dineen said. “I’ve asked a lot of questions of both the players and the coaching staff. I will say that I have a long way to go, but I’m a long way away from where I first started on my first day.”
In his first game behind the bench, Dineen saw some good things from his squad, but there is a lot that needs to be worked on after a 4-1 loss to the Americans on Friday night at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D.
“Moving forward we’ll look for a little more consistency out of this group, but certainly there is some skill out there and it was a chance to see them and get a first impression,” said Dineen, who spent the past three seasons behind the bench with the Florida Panthers before being fired on Nov. 8.
His first impressions of his team’s most likely gold-medal rival left him with the thought that there is a lot of work to do and a short time to get it done.
“That’s a good hockey team. There’s some real skill over there and you can see that they’re well coached,” Dineen said. “They played well tonight and had a lot of enthusiasm to their game and they pushed hard. They’re certainly a very worthy opponent for us.”