Bill Dineen’s legacy lives on as hockey continues fight against cancer

Kevin Dineen, left, and father Bill Dineen, head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, pose for a photo before a game in the 1992–93 season. (Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Kevin Dineen, left, and father Bill Dineen, head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, pose for a photo before a game in the 1992–93 season. (Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

 Sportsnet

Four years have passed since Bill Dineen left this world at age 84, from complications related to bladder cancer.

But stories of the great hockey patriarch, and his legacy, live on.

The 22nd annual Hockey Fights Cancer initiative offers a chance to reflect on Dineen — one of the game’s titans, and everyone’s favourite scout and coach.

Dineen’s reach as a player goes back to 1951 and Toronto St. Michael’s of the OHA, where he was a high-scoring right winger and solid all-around player. He jumped straight to the NHL in 1953 and immediate glory — becoming a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Detroit Red Wings (1954 and ’55), while rubbing elbows with the immortal Gordie Howe, a relationship that would pay dividends later on. While Dineen would play 324 NHL games with Detroit and Chicago (where he was banished in 1957 for joining the cause of players’ rights with Ted Lindsay on the Red Wings), he carved his legend at all professional levels as a player, coach and GM.

In his early years, Bill was nicknamed ‘The Fox’ by his Red Wings teammates, a handle he attributed to an affinity for the night life, before he settled down.

As a motivating coach, Bill won two Avco Cups in the old World Hockey Association and two Calder Cups in the AHL. Twice he was named WHA coach of the year, and twice more in the AHL. He went on to earn his place in the AHL and WHA Halls of Fame, as well as the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame.

Today, the Dineen name lives on in hockey, as the five sons of Bill and Pat Dineen continue to make their mark in the game. And talk about a Rose among thorns — the lone daughter of Patricia and Bill, Rose Dineen, continues to hold her own among brothers Kevin, Gord, Jerry, Shawn and Peter. Rose was among those who provided special care to Bill in his difficult final weeks.

Bill was proud of the whole clan, which included 15 grandchildren at the time of his passing.

Sons Peter, Gord and Kevin all played in the NHL. Gord and Kevin both had stints in Ottawa with the Senators, Gord from 1992-94 and Kevin in 1999-2000.

Jerry Dineen has been a fixture with the New York Rangers as a video coach since the mid 1990s. Shawn Dineen is working with the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, B.C., while Peter is an associate coach with the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL.

Kevin Dineen had the longest run as a player, putting together an NHL career that spanned close to 1,200 games. Today he is head coach of the AHL San Diego Gulls, the top farm team of the Anaheim Ducks.

Gord Dineen just finished a stint with the AHL Rochester Amerks and is currently working in business in the Finger Lakes region, close to the Glens Falls, NY pulse of the Dineen clan.

It was while he was a player with the Red Wings that Bill met Patricia Sheedy, the love of his life. After three decades of living the nomadic hockey life, with Bill working as a player, coach, general manager and scout, the couple found a “little piece of heaven” on Glen Lake in the Adirondack Mountains, settling there in 1983.

“It’s time to drop an anchor,” Pat told Bill at the time.

So many other Dineens joined them by buying property on Glen Lake, it just might be renamed Lake Dineen one day.

The couple shared 27 great years in Upper New York State, before Pat died in 2010, a devastating loss for Bill. One of the comforts for the family when Bill departed was a sense that Pat and Bill would be reunited in heaven yet again.

To commemorate his passing, in August of 2017, the Civic Center Plaza in Glens Falls was dedicated “Bill Dineen Way.” Bill had coached and run hockey camps out of the old rink, and among those who attended the naming tribute ceremony was Dave Strader, just weeks before Strader would succumb to bile duct cancer.

Strader, the voice of the NHL Dallas Stars and a native of Glens Falls, was just 62 when he died in October of 2017. He had never seen a live game of hockey when he got his start, as play-by-play man of the AHL Adirondack Red Wings in 1979. Bill Dineen, of course, was head coach and then GM of Adirondack in the 1980s, winning two Calder Cups as coach.

The sight of Strader, visibly suffering from the late stages of cancer, attending the Dineen dedication, was moving.

“That made a huge impression on our family, that Dave would make that effort under the circumstances,” said Kevin, speaking from Kentucky, where he was visiting his pal John Sikura, a world class horse breeder.

Kevin has too many stories of his father to share in a single telling, but a few stand out. Such as the strange way he learned his dad was about to become his head coach with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1991. Paul Holmgren had just been fired in early December.

Kevin was at the rink with teammate Kjel Samuelson, when Samuelson asked Dineen if he’d heard the news.

“Yeah, that sucks,” Kevin said. “I feel bad for Paul.”

“No, no,” Samuelson said, “the new coach!”

“What?” Kevin said, looking blankly at Samuelson.

“Oh, ’c’mon, you know!” Samuelson said in a heavy Swedish accent. “It’s your dad!”

Kevin actually had no clue. This was long before cell phones and instant messaging. When Bill walked into the rink, he apologized to Kevin.

“I should have let you know, but I had a lot going on,” Bill told his son.

Together in Philadelphia for a couple of seasons on a sad-sack Flyers team, Kevin and Bill kept their relationship very professional. Other than family Christmas together and the occasional dinner with his mom and dad, Kevin saw Bill mostly at the rink, where the son received no special treatment.

“He was probably harder on me than on anybody else,” Kevin recalls.

“He’d come in between periods for his period review and go through some things and then he’d say, ‘Goddammit, Kevin, you’re handling that puck like a friggin’ grenade!’

“The guys loved it,” Kevin says. “They used to laugh. They knew there was no favouritism. He was just telling it like it is.”

That crusty message was hardly representative of Bill Dineen, the person, whose kindness was legendary.

Younger sister Margaret, who lives in Ottawa, where Bill spent most of his childhood and played for St. Pats, recalls that as a young pro Bill would empty out his pockets every night and keep the savings in a box to give to Margaret and brother Jake at season’s end.

“It was our candy money,” Margaret says. “To us, it was a treasure trove. Bill was a very generous man.”

One time in the 1950s, the Detroit Red Wings came to Ottawa to play an exhibition game and Bill’s parents hosted the team at a dinner. Margaret, 12 years younger than Bill and a little girl at the time, recalls tap dancing to entertain such Red Wing immortals as Gordie Howe, Red Kelly and Ted Lindsay.

“They were all so nice,” says Margaret, from her home, where she lives with husband Tom Keogh.

Hockey is a great river and from it flow no end of tributaries. It was while Bill was head coach and GM of the AHL Houston Aeros, a team Bill helped found, that he talked with Gordie Howe about coming out of retirement to play with his sons Mark and Marty in 1973. Thus, for a few years, did Houston become ‘Howes-ton’ for those who followed this legendary hockey story.

Gordie would later tell Bill those years playing with his sons were his favourite time in hockey.

While the Dineen kids would always tell stories about their dad and his myriad connections, when Bill died, the stories came back to them. In spades.

Ken Holland, known today as one of the most formidable GMs in the game and the architect of the great Red Wings teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s, made a point of reminding Kevin that it was Bill who told Holland he could have a future in hockey management. In the mid 1980s, Holland was a goaltender of modest ability for Dineen’s Adirondack Wings.

Retired referee Paul Stewart told of the time he and Bill got into it pretty good during a game in which Steward had made a suspect call. A few days later, Stewart received a two-page letter in the most beautiful handwriting he had ever seen. It was Bill, apologising in an old-school way for getting carried away in the heated, in-game argument.

“Those kinds of small gestures are the ones that people remember for a long time,” Kevin says. “It changes you as a dad. He set the example for how to act with your own kids.”

Even Neil Diamond could tell you a Bill Dineen story, if you asked him.

During a cross-country concert tour, Diamond ran into Dineen at an arena venue and they got to talking. Dineen attended the show that night as a guest of the great troubadour.

At Bill’s funeral, the women in the Dineen clan had that story in mind when they took to the stage at the bar in the Glens Falls hotel where some of the visiting family were staying. In rare form, they belted out a rendition of Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”

“We sang with vigour,” Margaret recalls. “Nobody had tears — we were just really into it. It was a wonderful memory.”

The best trade Bill Dineen ever made, comes with an assist from son Jerry.
After Wayne Gretzky played his final game with the New York Rangers in 1999 (his last game in Canada happened to be in Ottawa), Jerry, a Rangers staffer, helped arrange for his dad to get a Gretzky game-used stick. In exchange, Bill gave the Great One a drinking glass etched in red ink with the signatures of the entire 1954 Red Wings team. As Stanley Cup champions, each Detroit player in 1954 had received a set of eight autographed glasses. In this way, Bill offered a toast to Gretzky, who in turn stick-tapped an homage to Bill.

“I used to sleep with that stick every time I went down there (to Glens Falls),” Margaret laughs. “It was in our bedroom.”

In the end, what is the Bill Dineen legacy as hockey continues to fight cancer with programs of support throughout North America?

It may be as simple as this: Bill Dineen was an exemplar of all that is good in the game.

Dineen’s career and life serve as a reminder that hockey bears a wide streak of great people who have passed down the traits of decency, respect and humour through the years.

“He was just such a nice guy,” his sister Margaret says. “He treated everybody the same, be it family, friends, the arena janitor, the gardener, it didn’t make any difference.

“He had a great way of finding a common denominator with people, and could just chat about anything. He had a special gift.”