John Wayne on skates.

Somewhere in an attic in Columbus, Ohio I'm sure there's a portrait of a once young hockey player that's aging gracefully on the way to a serious bout with old age. Kevin Dineen stood outside the visitor's locker room at the Hartford Civic Center last night after his Portland Pirates had taken the first of eight head up battles with the Hartford Wolf Pack, this one opening with the two teams tied for first place in the American Hockey League's Atlantic Division.

His looks belied the twenty years that have passed since he danced around Larry Robinson to score the biggest goal in Hartford Whalers history. Still Kevin Dineen. Still the boyish looks and the dark curly hair. Still the gleam in his eye whenever the subject is hockey or family. Still deflecting credit to others.

"These guys realized it was a pretty special night for me", he said of his return to Hartford, when asked what he'd said in the locker room to ignite a three goal outburst to start the second period, "Nothing was said, but actions really speak louder than words. You can sit there and say whatever you want about me, but that kind of character is a hard thing to find."

There was always something mythical about Kevin Dineen, his ability to rise to the biggest occasions, his refusal to give up on any dire situation, slight of stature with an immeasurable heart. For as magical as the drive around Robinson was, it was an even more mystical moment eleven years later when, of all the players who had worn the Whaler uniform, countless hall of famers among them, it was Kevin Dineen who scored the final goal in Whalers history.

When you mention the Whalers two names quickly jump to the fore. Ron Francis. Kevin Dineen.

Almost inseparable in Whalers history. Francis was the greatest Whaler of them all, Dineen was here to the bitter end. It was probably preordained that when he retired as a player Dineen was destined for coaching. Hockey is in his genes, coaching is in his bloodline.

"Probably four people asked me tonight, 'How's your dad doing, how's your dad?'", he says of inquiries about Bill Dineen, a hockey gentleman of the first order who once coached his son in Hartford. "I think he just had that special character that people responded to and I think that runs in all of us brothers that how you treat people is how you get treated back."

Kevin is the fourth Dineen in coaching, brothers Gord and Gary also following "Foxy" Bill into the profession, and for Kevin it's only natural that the traits of the player become the standards of the coach. "It's hard not to", he says. "I don't think you can feel your way through this. I don't have a long resume to sit on so I have to survive on what I survived on as a player, which is some emotion and trying to get a feel for who's got a little extra jump at the time."

Dineen sensed that jump in Dustin Penner last night, translated it into some extra ice time and Penner delivered a franchise record tying four goals. A little well placed instinct and there's nothing to this coaching thing. For now.

"When I've won eight of my last nine it's pretty good", he chuckles, "But ask me in January when we go on an oh for five streak and my hair looks like yours", a joking reference to the signs of age on an old friend.

For now the gray hairs are restricted to a portrait in an attic in Columbus, where wife Ann is wrapping up family business before she and the kids join Kevin in Portland. Dorian Gray has nothing on Kevin Dineen.

Long time Whaler fans will be happy to know he's just the way they remember him. John Wayne on skates.

With a comment from the sports world, I'm Scott Gray.

- Scott Gray
  Nov 10, 2005

Dineen's Passion Play Ends On His Terms

Claude Lemieux has four Stanley Cup rings, Kevin Dineen has no Stanley Cup rings and none of the arithmetic was lost on Dineen three weeks ago at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

"I'm lined up against Claude when we're playing Phoenix, and I get it in my head that he's personally responsible for taking two rings away from me," Dineen said Tuesday, a few hours after he announced his retirement as a player. "Then I start thinking about how I might be retiring soon."

The more Dineen thought about Lemieux going high to the glove side on Mike Liut in overtime of Game 7 of the 1986 Adams Division finals, the angrier he got. The more he thought about Lemieux leading the Devils past his Flyers in the 1995 conference finals, the more frustrated he grew. He couldn't take it anymore.

"I go, `C'mon Claude, drop the gloves. For old time sake,'" Dineen said. "I wanted to even the score a little."

"I can't," Lemieux answered.

"Why not?" Dineen said.

At this point, Dineen begins to mimic Lemieux's French accent.

"I have 24 stee-iches in zee hand."

Lemieux didn't take off his glove to prove it, and a Coyotes media relations spokesman said he was unaware of Lemieux's lacerated hand. For purposes of Whalers legend, the inquest must stop there. The fable has more texture if we don't know whether Lemieux, the great provocateur, was playing hurt or playing chicken.

"Besides," Dineen said, laughing, "it's my story."

Dineen's 1,188-game story ended Sunday on his terms. With 1:46 left in Columbus' 3-2 victory over Buffalo, Dineen, 39, smiled all the way to the penalty box, blood flowing from a cut around his eye that would need three stitches to close.

"My dad told me a long time ago that at the end of the night you always need to get on the score sheet someway to make your presence known," Dineen said.

Assisted by Geoff Sanderson and Andrew Cassels, Dineen had scored the final goal in Whalers history that emotionally charged farewell afternoon in 1997. The sellout crowd at the Civic Center stood and cheered his presence for three minutes. As fate would have it, Dineen found himself skating with the same linemates 51/2 years later in his own farewell game.

Dineen badly wanted a goal and, angered by a missed scoring chance, he tried to break a stick over his knee. Subtlety was never Dineen's game. He loves Ron Francis, but he is not Ron Francis. Dineen is action, reaction and exploding synapses. And when he blew around Larry Robinson and beat Patrick Roy in overtime of Game 4 in the 1986 playoffs against Montreal, Dineen was the fireball who made folks in Hartford believe anything was possible.

Although he didn't score Sunday, he had a sliver of time to do what his dad, Billy, urged him to do a long time ago. All game, Dineen had goaded Chris Gratton, five inches taller, 35 pounds heavier. And with the Blue Jackets clinging to a one-goal lead, Gratton, who, coincidentally, had assisted on Tampa Bay's last goal in the Whalers' finale, lost it. He crunched Dineen into the boards. They traded blows. Dineen left bloody and satisfied he had taken the Sabres' leading scorer with him.

"People have said to me that I had that passion, that intensity, character on the ice," Dineen said. "To be able to do that, keep it up and literally finish that way is satisfying. But it's also no secret I had to play that way to make it."

The evidence is in the NHL record book. Dineen is one of only six players in NHL history to amass more than 350 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes. The numbers are fairly impressive. That Dineen finished among the top 60 all-time in games played, however, is astonishing.

He is 5 feet 11, 190 pounds. He played 6-3, 220. He never played it careful. Playing at such a frenetic pace and suffering from Crohn's disease (chronic inflammation of the digestive tract), it was predicted here many years ago that he'd be fortunate to last six seasons.

"Don't feel bad," Dineen said. "Gordie Howe said the same thing."

Dineen's wife, Annie, said her man choked up only once at the press conference.

"That was when he mentioned Ronnie's name," Annie said.

Annie's a Hartford girl, a nurse who helped Dineen in his battle with Crohn's. She knows better than anyone that you cannot introduce Dineen's name without introducing Ron Francis. When he made his decision to retire Saturday, he called Francis and Jeff O'Neill in Carolina. Ronnie wrote Dineen a touching letter. He even tried at the last minute to get to the game.

"It's hard for me today to define a highlight or a moment in my career," Dineen said. "Just Ronnie himself is at the top of the list."

From helping Sanderson in Hartford to Eric Lindros in Philly to O'Neill in Carolina and onto Columbus, Dineen grew into one of the best locker room influences in sport. To this day, O'Neill keeps an autographed picture of Dineen.

Hockey is the Dineens' moveable feast. As a player, scout and coach, Billy moved 22 times and Kevin never stopped moving. When Kevin was young, Billy was scraping to support a family. Kevin's Christmas presents would be used skates from his brother Gord. When he got new hockey gloves when he was 12, Kevin believed it was the greatest Christmas ever. The Dineens grew up tough and they grew up caring.

"For me today," Annie said "it was an honor to hear Dave King [the Blue Jackets' coach, who also coached Dineen in the 1984 Olympics] talk about how Kevin was the first one to help the younger guys. Even the ones who would eventually take his job."

The Blue Jackets had left open the door for his return this year and Dineen said there was considerable satisfaction in earning a job at training camp. Yet it soon became clear he would be a spare player and Dineen accepted a job from the Blue Jackets in player development.

"After all this time using my body," Dineen said, "it's a little scary to have to use my brain. But retiring is also giving me a chance to reflect. I've even sent somebody on a mission to find a tape of that fight [when he knocked Mike Milbury cold]."

Dineen broke into a laugh. This would not be a sad day for him and Annie. They knew a guy who wasn't supposed to last long damn near lasted forever. He filled the score sheet.

- Jeff Jacobs
  Nov 6, 2002