The Nelson Leafs are hoping a former coach can work some magic midway through a nightmare season.
Mario DiBella, 59, was hired Sunday as the Leafs’ new head coach and general manager after David McLellan’s resignation. It’s DiBella’s second time around in the roles after previously serving from 2000 to 2002. He resigned after his second season to focus on his family.
DiBella said Monday he’s looking forward to returning to the team.
“I’ve coached a long time and I see this as a challenge,” said DiBella. “I see that there is a good core group of players. I’m excited by the opportunity. I was flattered when I was approached and I hope some of my experience will help them move forward in a positive direction.”
McLellan resigned last week citing interference from the team’s board of directors in hockey operations as the reason for his departure, an allegation team president John Dooley denied.
Dooley said hiring DiBella is a great development for the team, which was under pressure to find someone before the Leafs return from the holiday break for a road game against the division-leading Beaver Valley Nitehawks on Dec. 30.
“[DiBella is] a very well prepared person,” said Dooley. “He’s going to bring some real structure to the organization and I believe that’s what we need now on the team side.”
DiBella’s coaching staff has not yet been announced, although he said he wants to make that decision prior to Christmas. Assistant coach Greg Andrusak left the Leafs alongside McLellan, while assistant coach Sean Dooley served as interim head coach for one game.
The team’s new coach already has plenty of work to do. Nelson (14-19-1) has just three wins in its last 18 games, is fourth in the Neil Murdoch Division and has been mired by injuries and a revolving door of players. Yet DiBella said he’s not willing to call it a lost season.
“We’re going to be positive. They’re young men. They are all winners and they are going to be treated like winners,” said DiBella, who added he wants to break up the remaining 18 game up into segments where the players can see success.
He previously coached the Kootenay Ice major midget league team as well as held coaching positions with the provincial team at various levels and scouted for teams in the BCHL and SJHL.
DiBella, who owns Martech Electrical Systems based out of Castlegar, also played goaltender for the Nelson junior Maple Leafs in 1976-77 and the senior Maple Leafs in 1977-78 and from 1981 to 1985.
“It’s a storied organization,“ he said. “There’s been a lot of great players and great citizens that have graduated from the program. When I was a youngster I looked up to the Nelson senior Maple Leafs team and some of the players that played on those teams as role models in the community.”
Dooley said the board of directors was hesitant to hire someone who didn’t have prior experience with the team. Hiring DiBella now, Dooley said, was “the perfect situation for both of us.”
“It gives him a chance now to bite into half a season and see, ‘okay is this the right fit for me?’ and it gives us a chance to see if he’s the right fit for us,” said Dooley. “On the face of it from his past experience we’re very excited and we think going forward that he could be the guy, but having said that it will be entirely up to the executive to sit down at the end of this season and just look at where we’re going to head going forward.”
DiBella will find his hands a little tied as a general manager. The Leafs have just two player cards left, and key players Maximilan Daerendinger and Rayce Miller are still injured. DiBella said he hoped to get an update on their status shortly.
Dooley acknowledged DiBella won’t have much flexibility for the rest of the season while also making a point to say roster decisions aren’t the business of the board. As far as DiBella is concerned, he’ll work with what he’s got.
“We’re going to sit and evaluate where our deficiencies are and hit the two cards as hard as we can and get the best two players here that we can to fill those last two cards,” he said.
The Leafs’ first game at home with their new coach behind the bench is Dec. 31 against Beaver Valley.
(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated DiBella coached the Leafs from 1999-2002.)