The Portland Pirates had just wrapped up a rare late morning start time by posting a 6-1 rout over the Manchester Monarchs as part of a franchise record 11-game winning streak.
It would be a special day for Pirates head coach Kevin Dineen on several fronts.
Among the 5,000 fans in attendance at the Cumberland County Civic Center was an estimated 3,500 students from 23 participating schools. They showed up for the matinee as part of a promotion in the state of Maine designed to encourage healthy eating and physical activity in the school environment.
Hours after his post-game media duties were complete, Dineen sat in a stall in an empty Pirates’ dressing room talking about the health issues that almost derailed his hockey career as a player and continue to present challenges as a coach.
Dineen, who comes from a hockey family with top-notch credentials, was two years into an 18-year NHL playing career and had debuted with a bang, scoring 25 goals his first season and 33 his second. He had taken a little vacation time in Greece after playing in the World Championships in Austria.
Things were looking up for his team, the Hartford Whalers, and Dineen was on top of the hockey world.
And about to crash.
“I got back and I had these horrible, horrible stomach issues going on that persisted for a long time,” the soft-spoken Dineen said. “Maybe I’d had some symptoms before, but nothing that really stuck out. This was to the point I knew something was going on. I went in and saw a doctor, and after a couple of months of testing I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.”
No big deal, he figured.
Professional athletes deal with physical setbacks all the time. They get injured. They get fixed up. They get back on the field of play.
But this was no broken bone. No pulled hamstring.
This was a nasty sentence of Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory disease of the intestines.
“It was a real eye-opening experience because that [a quick fix] is just not the way it works,” Dineen said. “This is a chronic, debilitating disease that’s with you for life. It took me a couple of years to come to grips with that.”
The early times, before he learned more about the disease, were especially tough. The fear of the unknown, both in the present and future tenses, was hard to come to grips with.
Once in the late 1980s and again in the early ’90s, he got too run-down and was hospitalized for a stretch of several days in the middle of the NHL season.
With the help of his wife, Annie – who is a nurse from Hartford – and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation and other friends and family, Dineen went after the disease much like he went after hockey.
He had built a reputation as a passionate player, both skilled and tough, who never backed down from a challenge. He worked on – and still does to this day – managing the demands of a game and profession that involves all kinds of physical and mental stress, along with much travel.
When Dineen first started with the team, Pirate officials knew little of his health background.
“It just adds another layer to the type of person he is,” said Brian Petrovek, the managing owner and CEO of the Pirates.
“He chooses not to make excuses or look for sympathy. He does what he does with integrity, no BS. He has something he wants to share about Crohn’s and he does that. Not a lot of professionals can do that and do it well. But he’s chosen to.”
Dineen got much out of his own playing career, despite the Crohn’s. He was listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, but played at closer to 175 pounds and in those 18 years scored 355 NHL goals and had 405 assists for 760 points and had 2,229 minutes in penalties. When he retired early in the 2002-03 season, it was reported that he was one of only a half dozen players who had finished with more than 350 goals and more than 2,000 minutes in penalties.
He had other highlights as well. He scored the last goal in the history of the Whalers – fitting since he and Ron Francis were two of the lasting faces of the franchise – and the first for the Carolina Hurricanes. And he played for his father, Bill, while he was with the Philadelphia Flyers.
His father is retired now. But Kevin and his brothers are going strong in hockey.
Gord, like Kevin, coaches in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies; Shaun is a scout with Nashville; Pete is a scout with Columbus in the NHL; and Gerry is in his 16th year doing video work with the New York Rangers.
“We’ve got the league fairly covered,” Dineen said with a smile.
And yes, Dineen said, he aspires to coach in the NHL, and Petrovek thinks it’s only a matter of time before he gets his chance.
In the meantime, Dineen noted that he and Annie and their four children love living close to the water in the Portland area. He feels lucky to have the opportunity to coach and feels fortunate, too, that he’s always had access to the best medical care and has been able to manage Crohn’s through the years.
For the most part though, he has been able to keep the Crohn’s in check by watching what he eats, eating in moderation and taking care of himself.
But he always respects it.
“It’s a management factor for me,” Dineen said. “I’ve learned you can have a very large growl on if things aren’t going well for a long time. But at the end of the day your 6-year-old at home doesn’t really care if you’re winning or losing down at the rink. Nor does your body.
“There’s some life lessons in there as well. No matter how ugly things can be at the rink, or you feel they are at the rink, there’s this whole other world that’s functioning around you and you’ve got to get on board.”
Kevin Dineen, to be sure, is fully on board.
Allen Lessels is a writer with the New Hampshire Union Leader in Manchester, N.H.