Mario DiBella, a former Nelson Leafs player who returned in 2015 to help rebuild the then-struggling franchise into an eternal contender, will retire as head coach after the current season.
DiBella said he would have called it a career already if the pandemic hadn’t limited the 2020-21 season to just three games. Instead, he wanted to wait out a full season, which this year took place without any disruption from COVID-19.
“I wanted to go on my terms,” he said. “Not because we were closed.”
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 29-10-1 record.
That’s a long way from when DiBella returned for his second stint as head coach.
The Leafs had reason to be optimistic after finishing the 2013-14 season with the best record in the league, even though they were dropped in the second round. Then head coach Frank Maida quit and the franchise hired Matt Hughes in May 2014.
But Hughes quit just two months later to take another job, and the Leafs turned to Dave McLellan instead. Under McLellan the team went 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 holidays.
The Leafs turned to DiBella, who, unlike Hughes and McLellan, had previously played and coached the team.
The Nelson native played for the then junior Leafs from 1975 to 1977, then played goalie for the senior Leafs for the 1977-78 season and again from 1981 to 1985. Once his career As a player, DiBella helped found the Kootenay Ice major midget team and also coached provincial teams.
In 2000, DiBella was hired as an assistant coach for the Leafs 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 personal issues at the time and needed a distraction when the Leafs called.
“It filled a void for me where I spent my evenings doing what gave me pleasure for many years.”
The team finished fourth this season and were swept in the first round.
The following summer, DiBella said he spoke to hundreds of players, many of whom were uninterested in joining a team that at the time had a poor reputation. But those who responded appreciated DiBella’s candor.
Jack Karran joined the Leafs as a rookie for the 2016-17 season. He was about to quit hockey before getting a call from then-assistant general manager Sean Dooley. Under DiBella he thrived and was later named captain in the 2018-19 season.
“The things I learned from first and second year really changed who I was as a player,” said Karran, who is now a forestry student at Selkirk College in Castlegar. “Mario helped me become that player. I thank him for that.”
DiBella’s best move, in retrospect, was realizing he needed help.
In 2016, he contacted 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 the dual role of general managers, and DiBella had the experience to handle it. But he also ran three businesses during the working days and found he could use Morey’s eye for talent.
Morey joined the team as a consultant in the 2016-17 season and was named general manager the following year.
“The first time I spoke to Lance, our relationship was one where we were like-minded. We shared the same values, we did it for the same reasons,” DiBella said.
“It’s something that, to date, has enriched my life greatly. We’re now at a point where I can start a sentence and he can finish it, and vice versa, because we’re pretty much the same.
It started 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 sown. The following year, Nelson skyrocketed to first place and in the playoffs reached the conference finals, just two wins away from playing for a league title.
Sawyer Hunt served as the Leafs’ captain for those first two seasons under DiBella. His older brother Dryden, who was also coached by DiBella and now plays for the New York Rangers, told him about DiBella’s fiery personality before he joined the Leafs.
In person, Sawyer Hunt found DiBella to be surprisingly sweet and supportive.
“The one thing 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’ve always liked that about him.”
DiBella’s temper has cooled over the years. He used to argue more calls, yelling at officials and referees from the bench, but now tends to opt for a quiet nod of disapproval. (DiBella’s son Adam, who is an assistant coach and general manager, inherited his father’s lungs.)
He still wants to win, he no longer feels obliged to prove his worth as a coach.
“I look back on some of the decisions I made as a coach in previous years and looking back, you think, boy, I should have done things differently,” DiBella says.
“But now I’m at a point where whether it’s the systems we’re playing, the opponent, the preparation, I like the challenge. I like that it’s the only stronghold that doesn’t have not been affected by social pressure regarding, it’s OK to win, it’s OK to be an intimidating force, it’s OK to show off your skills.
The only thing DiBella has left is to win a championship.
His teams have been consistently competitive since 2017. On paper, moving to the Conference Finals in 2018 was the highlight, but the 2019-20 roster was special.
That year, the Leafs opened the playoffs by beating the Beaver Valley Nitehawks 11-0 in the first two games on the road to the second round and looked quite a title contender until the pandemic canceled prematurely the post-season.
The following season lasted only three games. DiBella describes this list as the one that got away with it for all its talent.
This season, DiBella thinks he has his most consistent 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 – but a deep formation 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.
Regardless of how 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 plays hockey and another who is learning to skate.
He also believes he left the Leafs in a better place. The team left him in a better place too.
“I was lucky, he says, to be surrounded by good people.
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