Johnstown Grad Savoring Role In NHL Playoffs

By Mike Mastovich
The Tribune-Democrat
May 2, 2004

Former Johnstown Chiefs forward Harold Hersh thought he recognized the assistant equipment manager standing on the Tampa Bay Lightning bench during the NHL Eastern Conference semifinals in Montreal.

“Heinze, is that you?” Hersh yelled in the direction of Dana Heinze, a Westmont Hilltop graduate and former equipment manager of the ECHL Chiefs.

A native of Laval, Quebec, Hersh visited a sold-out Bell Centre to watch the Canadiens, who fell to the Lightning in four straight contests, including games 3 and 4 in Montreal. His Habs might have lost, but Hersh was intrigued by Heinze’s new look, which included a rugged-looking, bushy playoff beard.

“He wasn’t sure it was me, so he yelled out my name to see if I’d look,” Heinze said Friday during a telephone interview in Tampa, where the Lightning prepared for the franchise’s first trip to the conference finals.

Tampa Bay will play either Philadelphia or Toronto.

For now, Heinze savors the moment but maintains his composure, just as the rest of the Lightning team and support staff have done.

The 36-year-old doesn’t intend to shave in the near future.

“The whole staff is growing the beard. I’ve been blessed with growing the best beard,” said Heinze, in his fourth season with the Lightning. “I want to trim it up but we’re not allowed. You have to let it ride. All the players tease me and call me Grizzly.”

The Lightning, with a whole package of feel-good and unusual story lines, have made a serious statement during this Stanley Cup run.

There is the scoring punch of Martin St. Louis, the regular-season points leader, and former first-round draft pick Vincent Lecavalier, who was held without a point in the opening series against the New York Islanders but had five goals in the first three games against Montreal.

There’s goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, almost written off just prior to the NHL trade deadline. Yet, he has four shutouts and has only allowed nine goals in nine games.

Khabibulin stopped 102 of 107 shots against Montreal.

Forward Eric Perrin joined the team late in the regular season and played four games while being reunited with his former University of Vermont teammate and friend St. Louis.

What would the postseason script be without Dave Andreychuk, a forward in his 22nd season, third with the Bolts?

“It’s been a storybook season,” said Heinze, the Chiefs equipment manager from 1988-92 and 1995-99. “Teams like this just don’t come around too often. Guys like Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Nikolai Khabibulin. You guys felt the same way with the Chiefs there this year in Johnstown. There is something special here. No matter what happens it’s been an incredible ride.

“What’s even more fantastic is watching a guy like Dave Andreychuk. You have everybody rooting for a guy like Dave Andreychuk. He’s like this year’s Ray Bourque (looking for his first Stanley Cup).”

In his own way, Heinze is part of this dream year.

After his first stint with the Chiefs under former coach Steve Carlson, Heinze landed an assistant equipment manager job with the New Jersey Devils in 1992-93. But halfway through the season, a young and homesick Heinze returned to Johnstown, thinking he might have squandered his only opportunity to work in the NHL.

Former Chiefs coach Nick Fotiu brought him back in 1995-96. In his second tenure of four seasons here, Heinze transformed the Cambria County War Memorial Arena locker rooms into spacious, user-friendly facilities with the assistance of current Chiefs equipment manager Mic Midderhoff.

His diligence paid off in 1999, when former Johnstown coach Scott Allen and then-GM Toby O’Brien helped Heinze earn a spot with the Detroit Vipers in the former International League. Detroit was Tampa Bay’s IHL affiliate. The big club summoned Heinze in 2000-01.

Last year, he was part of a Lightning playoff team that fell in the second round.

“Playoff hockey, you can’t describe it. It’s unbelievable,” Heinze said. “The extra hours and extra time we’re putting in are so worth it. The first round, to beat the Islanders was a tough series for us. To go into Montreal with their fans, the truest hockey fans in the world, to go up there and win with that hostile atmosphere was unbelievable.”

Heinze said the crowds in Montreal, where the Canadiens have won 24 Stanley Cups, are simply amazing.

“We have great fans in Tampa, but standing on the bench in Montreal, not even being a Canadiens fan, you get goose bumps,” Heinze said. “When they turn the lights down and start showing the history of the Canadiens and the ice is covered with pictures of the 1950s and 1960s and all their championships. It’s incredible.”

“When they announce their starting lineup, you think the roof is going to fall off. I think it’s incredible for our players and it shows what kind of discipline and character they have. They didn’t worry about the hostile crowd. They didn’t care that the Canadiens came out running and gunning. They just stuck to their game plan.”

The Lightning players’ businesslike approach has impressed Heinze, who also works with former Chiefs broadcaster Dave Mishkin, voice of the Lightning.