By Chip Minemyer
For The Tribune-Democrat
Dana Heinze had just finished having dinner with Mario Lemieux after a Penguins victory in Tampa when he got the most difficult phone call of his life.
Back home in Johnstown, his father was dying.
Heinze, the Penguins’ head equipment manager, was soon on a flight back to Pennsylvania. He arrived at his parents’ home in Westmont the next day, and was with his mother, his wife, his brother and sister-in-law at his father’s side when Lou Heinze died on March 4.
It was the toughest moment in a trying season for Heinze. But losing his father as the Pens were beginning to turn their season around has helped make the team’s run to the Stanley Cup finals all the more meaningful.
And the support he received from his hockey “family” helped Heinze and his own family deal with the loss of their patriarch.
“I remember in Tampa having to call my general manager,” Heinze said. “He said, ‘You need to go home and you need to go now. We’re going to put you on a plane.’ That’s what they did. Ray Shero was so supportive, as was the whole organization.
“By the time I got to Johns¬town, I had texts and phone messages from everybody on the team and people throughout the organization. It was amazing. Then after my father passed away, the team was still on the road. Tom McMillan, one of our chief PR guys, said to me that if the team had been at home we probably would have had two busloads of people at the funeral. The Penguins really are a special organization.”
Judy Heinze, Dana’s mother, said she could hardly believe the outpouring of sympathy after her husband’s passing. The funeral home was overflowing with flowers, including displays sent by the Penguins, the NHL, Fox Sports-Pittsburgh, ESPN and numerous other hockey and sports organizations.
“The support was unbelievable,” she said. “People were calling from all over the country. That was really something.
“The fact that Dana had that time with his father before he died was really amazing,” Judy said. “I don’t know how many organizations would have done that. If it had to happen, it could not have happened any better.”
She added: “Even after Lou died, when I’ve gone down for games and I’d be in Dana’s office, people would come by and offer their condolences. They didn’t forget.”
‘Ups and downs’
This is Heinze’s third trip to the Stanley Cup finals in five years.
He was with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2005 when they won the championship. Last year, he was with the Pens as they reached the finals before falling to the Detroit Red Wings in six games.
“When we won the Cup when I was in Tampa, that was the ultimate feeling in the world,” he said. “To win the Stanley Cup, you have to win 16 games. That’s incredible. People don’t realize how hard it is to get to the Stanley Cup.
“Last year against Detroit, the guys laid it all out but just came up a bit short. I remember thinking as the clock was winding down, ‘This isn’t happening. There’s still time left. We’re OK.’ Then it sunk in, watching the Red Wings celebrating. But hopefully this year is our storybook. Sometimes you have to lose to get to the next level.”
The Pens did plenty of losing early this season. They were in 10th place in the Eastern Conference and out of the playoff picture on Feb. 15, when coach Michael Therrien was replaced by former ECHL player Dan Bylsma. Trades brought Bill Guerrin, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams to the team, and the Pens got on a roll.
They had climbed to fourth place in the conference by the end of the regular season, then dispatched Philadelphia and Washington in the first two rounds. A four-game sweep of Carolina, capped off by Tuesday’s 4-1 win in Raleigh, sent the Pens back to the finals.
“We’ve faced adversity, some ups and downs,” Heinze said. “But the guys in our locker room never thought they were done.
“When Dan came in, the team responded. I remember his first pre-game speech on Long Island (before a game against the Islanders). He was so positive. He said the team needed to have a wolf pack mentality – that we needed to stick together. The guys really bought into that.”
‘I have been blessed’
When the puck drops Saturday in Detroit, emotions will be high.
“I’m going into my third Stanley Cup and it’s still not easy,” Heinze said. “When I’m standing on the bench, my heart is pounding.
“During the playoffs, we try to keep things as much like the regular season as possible,” he added. “The guys are creatures of habit. For me, it’s just an extension of the season, although the games bring more pressure. But the guys are getting new skates, I’m breaking in new gloves. We try to keep it normal.”
Heinze works every day with fellow Johnstown native Chris Stewart, the Pens’ athletic trainer. Stewart was with the Carolina Hurricanes when they won the NHL championship in 2006.
Both guys cut their hockey teeth with the Johnstown Chiefs in the ECHL, and could soon be hoisting the Stanley Cup for a second time.
“Every time I walk out onto the ice with Chris Stewart, it’s really amazing,” Heinze said. “I often say to him, ‘Can you believe this?’ It never gets old, that’s for sure. I was part of a Cup-winning team in Tampa. He won a Cup with Carolina. Could you imagine if we could share a Cup in Pittsburgh – two guys from Johnstown who paid their dues in the ECHL and made it here?
“I sometimes stop and think about how many players there have been in the NHL who have never gotten a sniff of the Stanley Cup, and how many support staffers there have been who have never been part of a Stanley Cup team. I have been blessed.”
‘He’s up there’
This has been a long, grueling season for the Pens and their equipment manager.
The team only had about a month off after the 2008 Stanley Cup finals before rookie camp began and preparations were made for a season-opening trip to Europe. Then came the long, slow slide out of the playoff chase before the late-season surge.
Heinze suffered a broken toe last month when the tailgate of the team’s equipment truck fell on his foot. And he’s been under the weather since the first round of the playoffs. “It has been a challenging year,” he said.
In the moments after Tuesday’s conference-clinching win over Carolina, Heinze’s thoughts turned to his father.
While some players were shedding tears of pure joy, Heinze’s tears were bittersweet.
“After we beat Carolina, I walked off the ice and went back into the equipment area, and I had a little moment,” he said. “I wish my dad were here to share this. But I’m so lucky that he was able to be part of my hockey career, celebrating a Stanley Cup in Tampa. And he was a big part of what we did last year.
“And we were in Tampa when I got the call that I should come home. So the last game I shared with my dad was Pittsburgh and Tampa – the two teams I have worked for. How ironic is that?”
At Dana’s insistence, Lou Heinze was buried with a Tampa Bay Lightning jacket and Penguins hat in his casket.
“It was hard, with him passing,” Heinze said. “But maybe he’s up there looking down right now. Maybe he can pull some strings for us, get us some divine intervention and help us bring back the Cup.”