(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — In some ways, Chris Dingman’s journey to winning two Stanley Cups began with meeting Bobby Lowes.
Now 42, the married father of two said he had a way of antagonizing coaches, including the one who threw a garbage can at him in minor hockey. But it was Lowes who got his attention.
“I remember going to camp and I had my earrings that I thought was cool with my long hair,” Dingman said. “Bobby took one look at me and said ‘You don’t (expletive) think you’re keeping those, do you?’ I was like ‘I don’t know. Kind of.’ He told me to get them out and it was ‘OK, this is the real deal.’ We’re not messing around, it doesn’t matter if I’m a first-round pick. You better get in line or life’s going to suck.
“I still tell people about him blowing the whistle in my face because I turned the puck over … You need that. Maybe you don’t need the yelling and screaming all the time, but I appreciated what he was and I appreciate him now.”
Dingman found Lowes’ passion and intensity was contagious, and that he learned how to work and what it would take to succeed under his guidance.
Long before the garbage cans began to fly, Dingman started skating around age three to five at an outdoor rink near his home. His only sibling, sister Michelle, was two years older and played ringette.
Dingman’s father Rob was not a hockey player — he was into football and played professional racquetball and squash — but was soon helping to coach his son.
“He helped me in that way and my mom (Darlene) was taking me around and making sure I was fed and had equipment,” he said. “I didn’t really need for anything, but my parents always made sure that I knew what everything cost.”
There were times when he had early morning practices well outside of the city, but always arrived on time. His parents helped him out in another way as well.
The 12-year-old youngster once put a clean hit on an older player and the boy’s father came out of the stands screaming at Dingman and trying to get him to fight. His father jumped out of the stands, grabbed the man by the throat and explained why that might be a poor idea.
“It was like ‘Whoa Dad, I didn’t know you had that in you,’” Dingman laughed. “When we got in the car, he was like ‘Not a word to your mother. Do you want a slurpee?’”
His parents told him he could play as long as he worked hard, something Dingman called an easy decision.
He still held some jobs, and also played football, basketball, volleyball, field hockey, baseball, rugby and soccer. He and future National Hockey League teammate Steven Reinprecht actually won baseball and hockey titles together in Edmonton.
Dingman wasn’t always a forward. He played goal for a season, and then moved back and forth between forward and the blue-line because he was a big kid.
The youngster had no awareness at all of the Western Hockey League growing up. Edmonton was without a franchise for 20 years from 1976 when the original Oil Kings moved to become the Portland Winterhawks to 1996 when the Edmonton Ice played for two seasons prior to a relocation to Cranbrook, B.C.
In the second year of the bantam draft, 1991, the Seattle Thunderbirds picked him 11th overall. They flew his family out for the Memorial Cup that they hosted in 1992 and he was settling into the idea of playing in the Pacific Northwest, especially after he was given some sticks and gloves.
It would never happen.
On Jan. 13, 1992, the Thunderbirds acquired Chris Osgood and Glen Webster from the Wheat Kings for Jesse Wilson, Jeff Jubenville, Andrew Reimer and future considerations.
A few days after the Memorial Cup, Dingman received a call from Wheat Kings general manager Kelly McCrimmon telling him that he was now Brandon property as part of the deal.
Dingman, who had no idea where Brandon even was, initially wanted to quit. His parents talked him into giving it a try, so he did.
“I went, and it’s four of the best years of hockey I ever had,” Dingman said. “It was a great experience but I really had no idea. I was just playing hockey.”
Dingman joined the Wheat Kings as a six-foot-four, 220-pound, 16-year-old rookie for the 1992-93 season. He initially found it intimidating.
“Bobby House had the long hair, a tinted visor and a look like he was going to kill somebody,” Dingman said. “I remember one of the first skates I ran him over — I smoked him — and I was a physical guy who had taken some boxing lessons because my dad had talked to some people that you have to be willing to protect yourself. So I ran him over, and all I heard was him yelling ‘22! 22!’ I was pretty scared and I thought ‘OK, I have to fight.’
“But he never came after me … You’re a young guy, you’re a big guy and as a rookie you have to pay your dues. You act tough and you act like you’re not scared, but deep down, you are.”
In his rookie season, Dingman scored 10 goals and added 17 assists in 50 games despite enduring what he guessed was a 17-game goalless drought when he couldn’t buy a goal despite a bunch of breakaways. He also had to fight through knee and Charley-horse issues.
At the same time, the Wheat Kings posted the largest season-over-season improvement in Canadian Hockey League history when they went from 11-55-6 to 43-25-4. Dingman said he was so in the moment he never really noticed it.
“You’re away from home, you’re trying to survive and ride a bus and go to school,” he said.
A big part of his success came with his billets. He lived all four years with the Hamm family, Kelly and Donna, along with son Kyle and daughter Amanda, and grew very close to them.
“They’re great people,” Dingman said. “Donna, God rest her soul, was just a beautiful person. Your parents drive you over and drop you off and you meet this family. They’re 28 or 30 at the time. They were young and I’m this huge kid. You don’t know who you’re going to live with and you’re tip-toeing around each other, it’s kind of like dating almost, you’re trying to get know each other. Kyle and Amanda were like three and five, and I had an older sister. It was like holy smokes, these kids are running around and I had never experienced anything like this … I wouldn’t be the parent I am and I wouldn’t be the coach I am without that experience.”
They remain in touch to this day.
In 45 games the following season, Dingman’s numbers improved to 21 goals and 20 assists in 45 games as he grew both in both confidence and into his large frame, and he received more ice time. He once again suffered knee and Charley-horse problems.
After the 1993-94 season, Dingman attended the NHL draft in Hartford, expecting to maybe go late in the first or possibly in the second round. Instead, the Calgary Flames picked him 19th overall.
“It’s kind of a surreal moment,” Dingman said. “I don’t know if I can put it into words. It’s just a dream come true. You grow up and dream of playing hockey — everybody does — and you’re not sure you’re going to do it. When you get drafted, you’re one step closer to your goal.”
Dingman’s father worked in interior design, and he had done work with the Edmonton Oilers on their dressing room and the houses of some of their staff. He had met some of the players as a kid, and had to put up with some good-natured ribbing after he was picked by the hated Flames.
It was certainly no joke what he would do to the WHL in the 1994-95 season. On a line with gifted playmaker Marty Murray and sniper Darren Ritchie, Dingman exploded for 40 goals and 43 assists in 66 games. He also drew 201 penalty minutes protecting his linemates.
Unfortunately for the big winger, in the third game of the playoffs he hurt his MCL in a collision. Brandon fell to Kamloops in the league final, but since the Blazers were hosting the Memorial Cup, the Wheat Kings earned a berth in the national tournament. Dingman returned to play the final two games as the Wheat Kings fell 2-1 in the semifinal to the Detroit Junior Red Wings.
With Murray’s graduation to the pro ranks, Dingman was named captain for the 1995-96 year.
“It meant everything, to be honest with you,” Dingman said of wearing the C. “I liked to lead by example and would do anything to win. I blocked a shot with my nose and came back in the last regular season game and scored and we finished first overall. I remember hearing Darren Van Oene say ‘I told you he was coming back’ and that meant everything to me. They knew I was coming back.”
Brandon earned its second league title in franchise history that season with a 3-0 win over the Spokane Chiefs on May 2, 1996 for a 4-1 series victory. Dingman said it was an incredible moment.
“It was fantastic,” Dingman said. “It was unbelievable. Until you win, it’s hard to explain to people what it takes and what goes into it without sounding all preachy and mighty. You have this team and you work together and you ride a bus and it’s awful. It’s a weird thing. You’re trying to win and you want to win, but it’s the weirdest trophy because you’re not done yet.”
Brandon would once again face heartache in the semifinal at the Memorial Cup, losing 4-3 to the host Peterborough Petes, a game that also spelled the end of Dingman’s junior career. The lessons, however, stayed with him.
“Everything I learned, living with the Hamms and playing junior in a small town where you weren’t allowed to act like a you-know what, because if you did you knew you were getting shaving cream in your shoes or gloves,” he said. “Everyone thinks it’s easy. ‘Oh ya, you played in the NHL, it’s two hours a day.’ It’s not easy getting there. Even in junior, it’s hard work. It’s humility and hard work.”
After a season in the American Hockey League, Dingman made his NHL debut on Oct. 1, 1997 against the visiting Detroit Red Wings. It was the start of a career that would see him play 385 NHL games with the Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning between 1997 and 2006.
He remembers lining up against Steve Yzerman’s line that night.
“You take it in for a second and think you have to work even harder to stay here,” Dingman said. “It’s very short-lived, and then you’re thinking ‘Well, I’m here’ and then think I’ve got to watch this guy or this guy, and then I scored on Patrick Roy and Marty Brodeur and it’s ‘Holy crap!” and you’re thinking you shouldn’t even be out here and then you realize you belong. Maybe I’m not at the level of some of those guys, but I’m an NHL player and I belong and I should be here and then you just enjoy the experience of the buildings and the players and the teams.”
Dingman fought more than 100 times in his NHL career, once getting punched so hard by Stu Grimson that he couldn’t hear on that side for three days. While he had concussions, he said it was the fear of being embarrassed that was the toughest part of the job.
He hoisted the Stanley Cup twice, in 2001 with Ray Bourque, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and the Avalanche, and then again in 2004 with Martin St. Louis, Dave Andreychuk and the Lightning.
“You stay in the moment and celebrate and then I go, once again, ‘What am I doing here?’” he said about the 2001 win when he played with a broken bone in his hand. “I’m on the ice with Ray Bourque and Rob Blake and Patrick Roy and Adam Foote and Sakic, all Hall-of-Famers, and these guys are just my brothers.”
Dingman didn’t play in the 2004-05 lockout year, and after one more season split between the NHL and AHL, headed to Sweden and Denmark for two final professional seasons. He left the game after the 2007-08 season despite having another offer in Italy.
“I was just playing to play and it was time to move on,” Dingman said. “It was time to do something else.”
By then he was married to Chelsea, who is now a published poet, and the couple have sons Hunter, 12, and Sawyer, 10.
After retirement, they settled back in Tampa Bay and he worked with the Lightning. Other than some forgetfulness due to the concussions and aching in his back, knees, shoulder and hands, he’s fine.
The family moved back to Edmonton a year ago and he works with his wife and brother-in-law in a company called Epoch Western Canada that sells the Stout Glove line. Dingman, who has discovered he is good in sales, also coaches a peewee AA hockey team.
Dingman, who quickly gained a devoted following among Wheat Kings fans, would rank among the team’s all-time most popular players. He chuckles and says fighting played a role, but there’s more to it than that.
His work ethic, goal-scoring ability and big personality also played a role.
In 2010, Dingman returned to Brandon to drop the puck at the Memorial Cup, and received a prolonged standing ovation, something he said nearly left him in tears.
“It was ‘Wow, people remember me how many years later and they still care,” Dingman said. “You have the opportunity to impact other people’s lives, whether that be teammates or fans or kids who look up to you. I try not to take that lightly. You want to be a positive role model. I want people to say good things about me.”