One summer, Dana Heinze worked at a hockey school at Providence College along with the team’s equipment manager, Bo Riendeau.
As camp drew to a close, Riendeau pulled Heinze into his office and said, “Dana, I have something for you.”
He held up a silver dollar.
“He said, ‘Dana, this is your lucky charm,'” Heinze said. “You’re going to make the National Hockey League one day.”
Heinze did just that and has had an absolutely remarkable career, playing over 2,000 professional games while being part of four Stanley Cup championship teams: Tampa Bay 2004 and Pittsburgh 2009, ’16 and ’17.
Now, after more than 30 years as a device manager, Heinze is entering the next phase of his life. He and his wife, Kathy, are moving back to their hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where they plan to spend more time with their families, particularly his mother and father, who are struggling with some health issues.
“I started professional ice hockey in 1988 and it’s 2022. That’s a good run,” said Heinze, 54, who will be honored at a Penguins game in the upcoming 2022/23 season. “I’ve had a blessed career. And at the end of the day, I go on my own terms. It’s been a magical, long, strange journey.”
This journey began in Johnstown, where Heinze grew up as the son of two school teachers. With their educational backgrounds, they approached subjects they knew nothing about with critical thinking. When a young Dana told his father he wanted to play hockey, “he said in his infinite wisdom, ‘Well, hockey is a Canadian sport. We’re going to Canada’”, Heinze remembers with a laugh.
“So we packed the family car and drove to Montreal. I found this little tiny pro shop in the middle of town, they outfitted me head to toe in Montreal Canadiens gear, and we drove back.”
Heinze, who was a goaltender, played at Westmont Hilltop through high school. They retired his No. 30 shirt a couple of years ago, which was a gesture that meant the world to him, especially considering how defining that experience was for his future.
“That was really my life for four years in high school,” Heinze said. “I wasn’t the best student. I was more interested in art and photography, and the rest of school really wasn’t my thing, which is kind of ironic because my parents were teachers. Hockey was kind of my focus.”
One afternoon, while Heinze was at Mohawk Valley Community College (where he studied advertising, design, illustration, and photography) playing a pickup game of hockey, he happened to meet the person who was the equipment manager for New Jersey’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Utica Devil . His name was Jeff Croop and he was the one who first got Heinze interested in this side of the business by showing him some of the ins and outs.
After Heinze’s college experience, he headed back to Johnstown, not sure what to do next. One day he was at the rink visiting Dave “Ziggy” Ziegler, a mainstay of the local Johnstown hockey community, through his tackle shop at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena. Ziegler told Heinze that a new East Coast Hockey League team called the Johnstown Chiefs was coming to the area and they were looking for someone to help them.
Heinze ended up meeting head coach Steve Carlson, one of the famous Hanson Brothers from the movie Slapshot, to discuss the possibility.
“We talked and he was like, ‘Well, do you think you’re capable of doing this job? Do you have the references for that?’” said Heinze. “I said ‘no’ (laughs). And then he said ‘Well, you’re hired!’ That was in 1988/89. That was my very first professional job. I was with the Johnstown Chiefs.”
Although Carlson, who was used to the American Hockey League and also played in the NHL, was at the bottom rung of professional hockey, he insisted that the staff did their best to get things right.
Back then, before today’s standardizations, home teams only had to provide visitors with two bars of soap, 20 towels, two cases of liquor and 20 warm-up pucks. That meant Heinze spent hours at laundromats along the way with rolls of quarters Carlson had given him. At that time, Heinze also started the tradition of making the cabin like a home, regardless of where the crew is, and hanging up pictures and sayings.
“Steve said, ‘I want it to be as professional as possible.’ So I wanted to treat them like they were in the NHL,” Heinze said. “He taught me so much. Having Steve backing me up and helping me and giving me his advice… he was always telling me to be the first on the rink and the last to leave. I have made that my credo.”
While at Johnstown, Heinze had the opportunity to attend some of those Providence College hockey camps that Croop had offered him through legendary general manager Lou Lamiorello since the school was his alma mater.
This association with Lamiorello, who became a mentor to Heinze, led to his first NHL job. New Jersey equipment manager JP Mattingly called Heinze and said, “Dana, Mr. Lamiorello spoke to me and we are looking for a second equipment manager.
And Heinze was, even if he had to cut off the long hair that had grown in his Grateful Dead hippie phase. So Heinze went to the hairdresser’s before meeting Lamiorello, who offered him the gig in 1992 after a long chat over a bowl of wedding soup.
“He taught me the love of detail,” said Heinze. “He’s really a very good man and I’m very proud of that, of the way I’ve run my business with attention to detail. I think that is very important.”
Heinze later moved back to Johnstown in 1995 while dealing with an illness and began a second stint with the Chiefs. After the 1998/99 season, Heinze spent the summer working as a garage door fitter and enjoying normal life for a change. That’s when Scott Allen, who had taken over as Chiefs head coach, called to tell Heinze that he had good news and bad news — that he was no longer working for Johnstown because he was going to work for the International Hockey League’s Detroit Vipers , which were a subsidiary of Tampa Bay.
Working in a league of this caliber was another incredible developmental experience that helped prepare Heinze for a return to the NHL that came in 2000 with the Lightning. He competed in their cup run in 2004 before coming to Pittsburgh in 2006 with some help from an old friend and fellow Johnstown fellow. Chris Stewart told Heinze that he had just been hired by the Penguins as their head athletic coach and that new general manager Ray Shero was looking for a senior equipment manager.
“I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m really happy in Tampa.’ A week goes by and then suddenly Scott Allen calls me,” Heinze recalled. “He says, ‘Are you crazy?’ I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “Dana, I just heard that you’ve had an opportunity to potentially work for the Pittsburgh Penguins. This is your dream job. What’s wrong with you?” I said, ‘Yeah, I think you’re right’ (laughs).”
After Heinze first arrived in Pittsburgh and entered the Penguins’ locker room at Mellon Arena for the first time, he was overcome with emotion — but not in a positive way. The dressing room was being renovated, so it was a mess and didn’t exactly inspire Heinze. From there he wanted to check into his hotel room across the street – but there was no reservation in his name. So Heinze returned to the rink to consider his next move.
“I went back to the lounge where the dye towels and all that stuff was, I’m sitting on a couch and I’m looking around and I’m like, ‘Did I make a mistake?'” Heinze recalled. “I started crying and suddenly Ray Shero comes out and sees me. I told him I thought I made a mistake and Ray told me I didn’t make a mistake. He said, ‘Listen, we hired you because we know you can do this, and just know what we need to do to get this team up and running and in the right direction. He made me feel so good. Anything moving forward was awesome with the rest of my long strange journey. “
Heinze set an incredible standard during his tenure with the Penguins, building on the foundation that began in Johnstown and continued in New Jersey and Tampa.
“You don’t get a book as an equipment manager,” he said. “You just don’t get a book that says, ‘Hey, that’s how you do everything.’ Everyone is unique in what they do and I think most people who know me realize I’m a little bit different than everyone else and I think that’s a good thing.”
Aside from the fact that dressing rooms should always be made as welcoming and comfortable as possible, no matter where the crew was located, another philosophy Heinze developed was that equipment staff always leave a visiting room cleaner than they found it.
“I loved setting up in the locker room and on the street,” Heinze said. “We put up our signs and banners and made sure it felt cozy. Just being around the guys and making sure they have everything they need – everyone who works there, we wanted to make sure everything is top notch. I think we did it and I’m really proud of that.”
Heinze also did a great job giving Penguins fans a behind-the-scenes look at this entire process. He used his artistic and photography background to share snaps on social media of a day that often started at 5:15 a.m. sharpening skates and lasted into the wee hours of the morning.
“There are a lot of things that happen throughout the day to get a game,” Heinze said. “That’s why we’re so proud when these guys go through the tunnel and get on the ice and we know their skates are perfect, their gear… they have everything they need and we’re here for them.”
Heinze joked that since he’s always had a fear of flying, he won’t miss all the air travel that traveling with an NHL team entails, but he will miss the people he traveled with.
“Every player I’ve been associated with over the years, whether it’s the East Coast League, the IHL or the National Hockey League – I’ve been so blessed to be around such great people and part of so many to be top notch organisations,” said Heinze. “There is no question that I have worked hard, put in many hours and am very proud of my accomplishments.”
Having learned from so many different mentors along the way, Heinze continued to pay it with current Pittsburgh staff members Jon Taglianetti, Paul DeFazio and Danny Kroll. He always described their dynamic as fingers on one hand and as for the future, Heinze knows the team is in a great place with this crew.
“The penguins will be in good hands with these guys,” said Heinze. “They will continue to do great things. I am honored to say that I was a penguin for 16 years. Now I think it’s time to embark on the next journey, which I think will be great.”