By Dan Hickling
When Kevin Dineen vacated the Portland Pirates’ coaches office last spring following a stellar six-year occupancy, he left behind two treasures for his successor, Ray Edwards.
The first of those was a letter, written before Edwards was hired to replace him, and stashed in his desk, wishing the Pirates’ new bench boss well.
The second was the gritty forward Igor Gongalsky, who played for the Pirates last year after receiving a midseason call-up from the ECHL.
Gongalsky, who thrived under Dineen's hand, was the only roster holdover after the Phoenix Coyotes replaced the Buffalo Sabres as the Pirates’ NHL parent.
“I had a lot of fun in this building (Cumberland County Civic Center) last year,” said Gongalsky. “It's a blessing for me to be staying here.”
Gongalsky, a native of Ukraine who emigrated to Canada as a teenager, was on his way to being a career Coast Leaguer – three full seasons minus a seven-game AHL cameo with San Antonio – when Dineen fished him out to fill a temporary need.
The need became permanent, as Gongalsky eventually saw his PTO ripped up, replaced by an AHL deal for the last portion of the season. Not bad for a guy who popped in just four goals for Portland.
Then again, Gongalsky's value to the Pirates went well beyond the score sheet, and Dineen was quick to notice.
“It happens a lot in this league,” said Edwards, whose own playing career topped out in the ECHL, “with all the turnover. Guys come up from the East Coast League and they get an opportunity. It's a short window, and if you don't do something with it, you go back down. Igor obviously sparked something with ‘Dino.’”
Gongalsky, who saw junior teammates such as Bobby Ryan, Wayne Simmonds and John Tavares go on to star in the NHL, caught the spark, too.
“The coaching staff was incredible last year,” he said. “They taught me a lot, on and off the ice. How you act. How you prepare for the games. Kevin Dineen was incredible. He let me play in any situation. I learned a lot from him.”
Change was rampant for the Pirates after their second-round exit from the Calder Cup playoffs.
Dineen left for his much deserved NHL coaching gig with Florida. The Sabres left for Rochester, replaced by the Coyotes, who ended their arrangement with San Antonio. And 35 faces poured into Portland when the Pirates opened training camp three weeks ago.
All of the visages were new, except for Gongalsky's, who had left an impression on both Edwards and Phoenix assistant GM Brad Treliving during that short stay in San Antonio. A job in Portland was his, if he could snatch it.
“You've got to love him,” said Edwards. He's a guy who really impresses. His hockey game has matured. There are not a lot of mistakes. He's simple. He's hard. He plays a heavy game. There's a package there.”
There's more than that. There's local knowledge.
With all those new Pirates cruising around Portland, it helps to have someone who can at least recommend a few eateries.
“The first few days,” Gongalsky said, “guys were asking me where to go for lunch, dinner, and breakfast. Now I think they're starting to find their own way.”
That puts a new spin on the phrase “the gift that keeps on giving.”
Around the AHL
The Worcester Sharks have announced an initiative – “Finz Fit Kidz” – whose aim is to promote the value of exercise and healthy choice-making to youth throughout Central Massachusetts. The first step in that direction will come Thursday, when the Sharks will host a concussion symposium at Saint Vincent Hospital, which sits directly across the street from their home rink, the DCU Center. All players in the MidState Junior Sharks program will receive ImPACT testing prior to the start of the upcoming season. The entire Sharks team will be on hand for the symposium.
Dan Hickling can be reached at email@example.com.