Mario DiBella, a former Nelson Leafs player who returned in 2015 to help rebuild the then-floundering franchise into a perennial contender, will retire as head coach after the current season.
DiBella said he would have already called it a career if the pandemic had not limited the 2020-2021 season to just three games. He wanted to wait instead for a full season, which this year has happened without any interruptions from COVID-19.
“I wanted to go on my terms,” he said. “Not because we were being shut down.”
DiBella, 65, may have picked the right season to call his shot. With two games left in the regular season, the Leafs lead the Neil Murdoch Division and are among the best in the KIJHL with a record of 29-10-1.
It’s a far cry from when DiBella returned for his second stint as head coach.
The Leafs had reason for optimism after finishing the 2013-14 season with the best record in the league, even if they were dumped in the second round. Then head coach Frank Maida resigned, and the franchise hired Matt Hughes in May 2014.
But Hughes resigned just two months later to take another job, and the Leafs instead turned to Dave McLellan. Under McLellan the team fell from first place to fourth in the division, and again had a losing record to start the 2015-16 season. McLellan resigned in December 2015 shortly before the holiday break.
The Leafs turned to DiBella, who unlike Hughes and McLellan had previously played for and coached the team.
The Nelson native played for the then-Junior Leafs from 1975-77, then suited up as goaltender for the Senior Leafs for the 1977-78 season and again from 1981 to 1985. Once his playing career ended, DiBella went on to help found the Kootenay Ice major midget team and also coached provincial teams.
In 2000, DiBella had been hired to be the Leafs’ assistant coach under Bruno Campese, but got an unexpected promotion when Campese left to take over the Trail Smoke Eaters. DiBella’s first stint as head coach was unremarkable, and he left in 2002 to focus on raising his children.
In 2015, DiBella said he had been going through some personal issues at the time and was in need of a distraction when the Leafs called.
“It filled a gap for me where I spent my evenings doing what it was that I had a joy for many years.”
The team finished fourth that season and were swept in the first round.
The next summer DiBella said he spoke to hundreds of players, many of whom weren’t interested in joining a team that at the time had a poor reputation. But the ones who responded appreciated how frank DiBella was.
Jack Karran joined the Leafs as a rookie for the 2016-17 season. He had been on the verge of quitting hockey before getting a call from then assistant GM Sean Dooley. Under DiBella he flourished, and was later named captain during the 2018-19 season.
“The things I learned from the first year and the second year, it really changed who I was a player,” said Karran, who is now a forestry student at Selkirk College in Castlegar. “Mario helped me develop into that player. I thank him for that.”
DiBella’s best move, in retrospect, was realizing he needed help.
In 2016 he reached out to Lance Morey, who had just won a national championship with the West Kelowna Warriors as the team’s scouting director. Then-Warriors head coach Rylen Ferster suggested DiBella contact Morey, whose son Zach had also just started playing for the Leafs.
Junior B head coaches typically play double duty as general managers, and DiBella had the experience to handle it. But he was also running three companies during the work days and realized he could use Morey’s eye for talent.
Morey joined the team as a consultant during the 2016-17 season, and was named general manager the next year.
“The first time I spoke to Lance, our relationship was one where we’re very like-minded. We shared the same values, we did it for the same reasons,” said DiBella.
“It was something that I feel to this day has greatly enriched my life. Now we’re at a point where I can start a sentence and he can finish it, and vice versa, because we’re very much the same.”
It started off as a slow burn. The Leafs finished third in the division at the end of the 2016-17 season and were swept in the second round. But the seeds had been planted. The next year Nelson rocketed to first place and in the playoffs made it to the conference finals, just two wins away from playing for a league title.
Sawyer Hunt was the Leafs’ captain for those first two seasons under DiBella. His older brother Dryden, who was also coached by DiBella and is now playing for the New York Rangers, had told him about DiBella’s fiery personality before he joined the Leafs.
In person, Sawyer Hunt found DiBella to be surprisingly soft spoken and supportive.
“The one thing that I really respected about him, the main thing was he wanted to win hockey games,” said Hunt, who is now a student at the University of Victoria. “I think that’s everyone’s goal. I always loved that about him.”
DiBella’s temper has cooled over the years. He used to argue more calls, shouting at officials and referees from the bench, but he now tends to opt for a quiet nod of disapproval. (DiBella’s son Adam, who is an assistant coach and GM, has inherited his father’s lungs.)
He still wants to win, he just doesn’t feel like he has to prove his merit as a coach anymore.
“I look back at some of the decisions that I’ve made coaching in previous years and in hindsight you think, boy, I should have done that differently,” says DiBella.
“But now I’m at a point where whether it’s the systems that we’re playing, the opponent, the preparation, I love the challenge. I love that this is the one bastion still left unimpacted by social pressure when it comes to, it’s OK to win, it’s OK to be an intimidating force, it’s OK to showcase your skills.”
The only thing left for DiBella to do is win a championship.
His teams have been consistently competitive since 2017. On paper the trip to the conference finals in 2018 was the high point, but the 2019-2020 roster was special.
That year, the Leafs opened the playoffs by outscoring the Beaver Valley Nitehawks 11-0 through the first two road games of the second round and looked every bit a title contender until the pandemic prematurely cancelled the post-season.
The next season lasted just three games. DiBella describes that roster as the one that got away for all of its talent.
This season, DiBella believes he has his most cohesive team. There are no stars per se — Leafs forward Joe Davidson leads the team with 38 points, which is still only 12th overall in the league scoring — but a deep roster has combined to score the second-most goals in the KIJHL.
“We come in waves. It’s like watching a tsunami hit the shore,” he says.
However the season ends, DiBella says he’s at peace with his decision to leave. He has five grandchildren to spend time with, one of whom is playing hockey and another who is just learning how to skate.
He also believes he’s left the Leafs in a better place. The team has left him in a better place too.
“I’ve had the good fortune,” he says, “of being surrounded by good people.”