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Thomas J. Diehl Sr. remembered as a generous, passionate hockey coach

Don Battista couldn't afford to buy a team jacket when he was a captain on Kenmore East High School's 2012 state championship hockey team.

One day before practice, the team's volunteer assistant coach, Thomas J. Diehl Sr., presented him with a box with his name on it. Inside was a team jacket.

"He would really do anything for anybody," Battista said.

Those who knew Diehl as a Town of Tonawanda police officer, a youth hockey coach and father of four were struggling Wednesday to come to terms with his death. Diehl, 33, died Monday following a yearlong battle with a rare form of leukemia.

"We knew he was sick and we knew it was a tough road, but from knowing Tom we just thought he could fight his way through anything," said Sam DeFranks, the former president of the board of the Town of Tonawanda Lightning Youth Hockey League, where Diehl had been a coach and board vice president for 10 years.

Lt. Thomas J. Diehl Sr.

Diehl was a member of the Town of Tonawanda Police Department for nearly 11 years when he took leave last year because of his illness. He had been named a police lieutenant at age 29, one of the youngest lieutenants in the history of the town's Police Department.

The Tonawanda Police Club held a benefit in Diehl's honor last summer to raise funds for his family. Nearly 1,200 people showed up, said Diehl's sister, Jaime K. Pichette.

"He was the best, most giving, most loving. He had a passion in everything he did, but he was also compassionate," she said. "He was a presence."

Diehl will be posthumously promoted to captain, department officials confirmed Wednesday.

Diehl's wife, Dawn, said Wednesday that she has been comforted by the hundreds of people who have been reaching out to her and her family on social media, including hockey players Diehl coached through the years. The boys' hockey program at Kenmore East was one of her husband's passions, she said.

"We thought he was amazing and wonderful, but all the boys have just been saying such beautiful things. It's just so nice that for all the hard work he has put in for them – they feel the same way about him," she said.

Diehl was only in his early 20s when he began coaching youth hockey about 10 years ago, said Debbie Delaney, the longtime treasurer of the Tonawanda Lightning Youth Hockey. She said in his first year of coaching, his Lightning Squirt Major Team won the New York State Tier II championship.

"This hit us all so hard," said Delaney. "Tom meant a lot (to our youth hockey program). (Wednesday night) we have our tryouts and we're all kind of lost because he's not going to be there."

Delaney used the word passionate to describe Diehl, as did Kenmore East hockey coach Kyle Pray, who coached Diehl when Diehl was playing in the Lightning League, for 10- to 12-year-old boys.

In 2007, Diehl became Pray's volunteer assistant hockey coach for the Kenmore East team and a very close friend, said Pray. He said Diehl was a key part of the coaching staff that guided the Ken-East Bulldogs to the state championships in 2012 and again in 2016.

"He was a great motivator. In 2012 (the championship year) he created the theme 'finish' because they had come so close the year before and he had T-shirts made for all the boys that had 'finish' on the back and that was their goal," said Pray. "In 2016 it was 'collect' to collect on missed opportunities. Little things he did made it special for all of us," said Pray.

He said that in 2016 Diehl was awarded the highest honor the school district gives to a volunteer, the Kenmore East Cornerstone Award, for his dedication to Ken-Ton Athletics.

Diehl's friend since first grade, David Grieco, also used the word "selfless" to describe Diehl and said his friend cared more about making other people happy than his own happiness.

"He was diagnosed two weeks before a friend's wedding. He was in the wedding with us. But he sent everyone a text saying he wouldn't be happy if everyone wasn't having a good time," said Grieco. "He was so worried about other people being upset."

Diehl was a 2001 graduate of Kenmore East, where he had played football, baseball and hockey. He was an NFL Football All-Star selection in high school and his Kenmore East hockey team won club league championships in the late 1990s and 2000 school year.

As a police officer, Diehl served as an instructor in defensive tactics at the Erie County Law Enforcement Training Academy. He had received many honors for his police work, including a Report of Commendation, a Certificate of Recognition and two Letters of Recognition. He also received an American Legion Certificate of Distinguished Achievement.

In addition to his wife and sister, he is survived by his children, Summer and Tony Amoia; 4-year-old twins, Thomas "T.J." Jr. and Teagan; and his parents, James E. and Shawn.

A Liturgy of the Word service will be offered at 11 a.m. Saturday in St. Amelia Catholic Church, 2999 Eggert Road, Town of Tonawanda.

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