After years with department stores as a buyer and manager, Diane Dillon followed her passion to a second career coaching college ice hockey, and now serves as head coach of the Oswego State Lakers women and, in this season of giving, as their coach in service to community.

How did you learn of a head coaching opportunity at SUNY Oswego?

The college was building the Campus Center, later named for the Maranos, in 2005-06 and I was one of several to be invited to apply to relaunch the women's ice hockey program. I was fortunate to be offered the job. I had to finish my contract as an assistant coach at Cornell University, and I was watching this building being built via the (Internet) camera atop Culkin. After Cornell's season was finished, I drove up here in March 2006. I begged to have a year to recruit. Much to President Stanley's credit, she wanted the building's opening to be women on one blue line and men on the other -- and that's exactly what happened. I give her great kudos for equal opportunities for women here in ice hockey.

The college had offered women's hockey in the past?

It was before the NCAA was involved, in the late '70s, early '80s. Women's hockey was on campus as a varsity sport; it had started as a club. In 1979 or 1980, I was playing at Cornell and we actually played SUNY Oswego.

What is your proudest moment in rebuilding women's ice hockey here?

A couple of things. On that opening day, I was actually able to field a team. It was so late to be knocking on doors (recruiting). It was an interesting group -- some great kids who wanted to be part of something special. We fought through a lot of adversity and a lot of firsts to get this program started. Our first jerseys showed up two days before the first game, there was wet paint in the hallway -- and we won that first game, with over 1,000 people in the stands. It was incredible. It was inspiring. I'm also proud of knocking off national champion Plattsburgh and beating RIT the year they won the Division III title. We've been building. We've had our setbacks, for sure. But we've never buckled under. We've always competed well. One of the things I'm proudest of is our academic performance. I tell our student-athletes, "There's no NHL for us to go on to. This is your NHL. So find the best combination where you can play some hockey but achieve your goals academically, so you can do whatever you want to do with your life." I'm very proud of our graduation rate, our GPA. I instituted something called the 3.0 Club. Every semester, anyone who gets a 3.0 or higher is honored -- it's a T-shirt, but in college, it's all about clothes and food. (Laughs.) These kids claw for it. There are some kids who've graduated here with eight shirts! This is out of my pocket, so it's costing me a fortune -- there have been times we've had 22 out of 25 kids earn one. I'm also extremely proud of mentoring assistant coaches and helping them move on to achieve their goals.

We are in the "giving season." Where does your giving spirit come from? 

My family came out of farming communities in Canada. In 1961 -- my mother was pregnant with me -- my grandmother's house burned on Christmas Eve. The Salvation Army and the United Way stepped right up. Every kid in the family had a toy, everyone had enough to eat, everybody had clothes on their back. My parents instilled in my brother and sister and me how important it is to help others. I've been very fortunate in life, and very fortunate I could do that.

Your Lakers reflect that spirit, too, year after year.

It's an important part of what we do. And it's an important part for the entire Oswego Lakers athletic department, so we're certainly not alone. I think it's very important that these young women understand how fortunate they are and take the opportunity to give back to the sport and the community that have supported them. Hockey is expensive, so it's become something of a privileged sport. The team has these beautiful facilities and the opportunity to compete. That's really been the impetus for our Big Sister-Little Sister Program. We are affiliated with the Oswego minor hockey program, to help little girls have an opportunity to gain some of the experiences we have playing a team sport. We have a big pairing party at the beginning of the year. Each player has two or three Little Sisters. They come to some of our games and they're our stick girls. During winter intercession, if the schedule permits, we help run some of their practices, help with their holiday tournament and we go bowling. The little kids usually beat us, because they get to use the bumpers! If just one little girl thinks, "Hey, one day I'm going to go to college," it's been a success.

What are some of your other favorite community activities?

We are involved with Trinity Catholic School. A number of our Little Sisters go there. We serve their Harvest Dinner every fall. Our student-athletes love it -- they get to eat a big turkey dinner! We're involved with the United Way. We just did Pink the Rink (Nov. 16 vs. Cortland) to raise money for the American Cancer Society and others, and we do our United Way food drive (Nov. 30 vs. Plattsburgh) in conjunction with the men. My favorite -- this may be the 10th year -- is Holiday Skate with the Lakers (Dec. 9). It originally started with just my team. It's a way to get the little kids out on the ice to skate with the big kids. It's grown over the years to include the men's team, and there are a lot more people coming. Guest appearances by Santa, and Auxiliary Services has been extremely generous. They donate a jersey every year to raffle off. They have the concession stands open. It's become a holiday tradition in this town. I'm really proud of that, personally. It's a fun way to kick off the holiday season. It shows our players that, "Hey, you were that little kid not that long ago." 

Your team does other generous deeds, such as helping with the United Way Stone Soup luncheon.

Some of these things we do behind the scenes. It's not about the recognition. It's really about teaching my team how important it is to be part of their community -- first and foremost, to give back to people who make it possible for us to do this sport. These student-athletes are role models, and they understand they're part of something that's bigger than themselves. They are not only representing themselves and their own families, they're representing the Laker family and, most importantly, this college. I have very high expectations for how they handle themselves in public and on the ice.

Let's roll back for a moment: Where were you born and raised?

Tonawanda, just outside Buffalo. My family is originally from Chatham, Ontario. My parents had moved to the States by the time I came along.

How old were you when you were introduced to skating and hockey?

Skating, I believe I was 4. My older sister started me in skating; she was a very good skater. My older brother played hockey -- he played for the Lakers for two years and is an alumnus. My father was a coach. I fell in love with hockey immediately -- it's just what our family did. The Buffalo Sabres joined the NHL in 1970, and I was fortunate enough as a kid to go see all of the greats: Bobby Orr, Jean Béliveau, Ken Dryden. I fell in love with Gilbert Perreault. He was my hero, No. 11, and that's one of the reasons I wore 11 my entire career. Everybody loved hockey. We played on the street, and on the pond across the street that froze. I shagged pucks for my dad's team. I could skate better than most of those boys!

When did you start in organized hockey?

At that time (1970), I was 9 and there was no girls' ice hockey and they wouldn't let girls compete on boys' teams. My dad put an ad in the paper for any girls who wanted to play hockey, rented the ice and we had about 12 kids show up. It's a wonderful story and I really credit my dad, Morley Dillon, for getting girls' hockey started in Western New York.

How did you choose Cornell for college, or did Cornell choose you? 

I graduated from high school in 1979 and did not realize there was women's college ice hockey. I was actually going to go to the University of Dayton on a field hockey scholarship. My senior year in high school, I was playing (club) ice hockey in the New York State Championship in Massena. There was a knock on the locker room door, and it was the Cornell coach. I discovered from him that there was an opportunity to play college hockey and go to a tremendous school. I had a little chat with my mom and dad. I gave up a full ride to a school in Ohio to go to Cornell. I think my mother passed out. (Laughs.) My father was excited. I played four years and thoroughly loved the experience. We won the Ivy League title my first three years. We didn't have a goalie my senior year, so we threw someone in the net. Our rallying cry was, "Don't let them cross the red line."

What did you major in?

I was an interior and product design major. I always enjoyed the arts. I found my calling, in a way, in interior design -- not really decoration but in architecture. I wanted to go to architecture school, but I never made it there. My senior project was working with a tennis club in Buffalo and redesigning the whole thing.

Where did you go to work?

After college, I traveled for about a year with a teammate. We zigzagged our way across the country, picked up jobs here and there. When we got back, I needed a job, so I started working for Sibley's department store. I worked there at night and also worked for a designer in town doing drawings -- floor plans, elevations. Next thing I know, I'm in Sibley's management program. I was named an assistant buyer and moved to their headquarters in Rochester. I later helped manage one of the stores in West Seneca, and then was promoted to a buyer. When Sibley's was bought out, I took the opportunity to move to California. I started working for Macy's as a buyer in San Francisco. I worked in advertising and finance, too. I got into the training department -- I was learning all these portions of the business. I really liked that. I was training buyers how to do their jobs, and it was kind of like coaching -- all along, I was coaching women's teams in California. I moved to Hong Kong for three months to train people from around the world on our procurement system. I was promoted to the headquarters of Federated Department Stores in Cincinnati to develop training materials for all our stores. I was moving up the ranks. But it was a job at a desk. 

When did you decide to make coaching women's hockey a full-time career?

College hockey had been exploding all along. I had good advice and reached out to different coaches. I happened to send an email to the Cornell coach, whom I had met at an alumni event. As fate would have it, I sent the email just about the day her current assistant coach resigned. I was fortunate enough to be offered the job at the end of 2000. I then had a major decision to make. Again, my mother passed out -- I cut my income by a good deal more than half -- and my dad was excited. I took the job. I drove through a snowstorm from Cincinnati to Ithaca, and got there during an ECAC All-Stars special exhibition game against the Olympians, and the players met me on the bench. I was an assistant coach there for five years, and I was very lucky to work with some incredible people. Working at my alma mater was a dream come true. The woman who became coach my second year was Melody Davidson, one of the greatest hockey minds, who later coached Team Canada to a gold medal in the Olympics. I learned so much, including how to organize a program, how to run it like a business.

Do you have other duties at Oswego?

All of the coaches have other duties. I'm the advisor for the Student Athletic Advisory Committee. I've been doing that for many years here. It's made up of representatives from the various sports. We act as the voice of all the student-athletes. I chair the committee for our Captains' Leadership Program, a training program for student-athletes from all of the sports.

What are your interests outside of hockey?

My partner Dawn and I love traveling in the summer. I read a lot in the off-season. I still like to get involved in the arts -- painting, drawing. I'm a movie buff, for sure. I have a dog and have had several pets over the years. I try to stay in touch with the younger generation and what they're interested in. I try every year to watch some of the TV shows they watch -- but I just can't do it. I think "The Bachelor" is what totally put me over the edge. (Laughs.) I like to visit family in the Buffalo area and keep in touch with my relatives in Canada near Chatham.