116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s easier to sell someone on something when it actually exists.
That’s what head coach/general manager Gerry Fleming and assistant coach/assistant general manager Derek Damon have found this summer as they try to piece together a roster for the 2022-23 Iowa Heartlanders.
“Totally. Absolutely,” Damon said. “I think it was difficult at first because people were like ‘Who are the Iowa Heartlanders? Are they really in the East Coast League?’ Now they can put a name to a tangible product that we had out there on the ice this year. We have people that can go around and speak about how well they enjoyed their time here in Iowa City and Coralville. That helps us out a lot.”
Fleming and Damon weren’t hired until August last year, which didn’t give them a whole lot of time to find players for the inaugural season of ECHL hockey in the Corridor. The Heartlanders improved as that season progressed, but a late cold stretch sent them to seventh and last place in the Central Division with a 29-33-9-1 record.
Iowa can extend qualifying offers to eight players from its 2021-22 roster and it announced this week that one of those eight had accepted. Twenty-six-year-old forward Zach White will return after putting up 18 goals and 51 points in 52 games last season.
White began the year in the lower-level Southern Professional Hockey League before getting a chance with the Heartlanders that he made the most of, without question.
“Mainly the comfortability,” White said. “I figured why wouldn’t I want to stay someplace that really appreciates what I can bring to the team? I think that’s kind of the main reason why. I’m hoping some of the guys do come back from last year.”
So do Fleming and Damon.
“I think we took a big step last year as a team in that second half of the year,” Damon said. “We built things the right way. It was slow progress the first couple of months, but we instilled a culture here in the room. Gerry was adamant about having a culture we could fall back on for years to come. It’s almost like we’re taking that mentality of we’re going to put our hard hats on, we’re going to go to work every day and get better.
“Those are the types of players we’re looking to bring in. And certainly having a full offseason allows us to really dig our heels in and find those types of players.”
Of course, the Heartlanders are an affiliate of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, and they could have players assigned to them by Minnesota. Defenseman Fedor Gordeev, foward Alexander Khovanov and goalie Hunter Jones were guys last season on NHL contracts who spent time with the Heartlanders.
The American Hockey League’s Iowa Wild (Minnesota’s top farm team) also signs players to AHL contracts, with some ending up in the ECHL. Defenseman Riese Zmolek is an example.
“That’s actually been a recruiting tool we’ve used more this summer,” Damon said. “Minnesota is really up against the (salary) cap next year in the NHL, has $13 million in dead cap space. So they’ve got to work to try and get a team that they can win with, while fitting into the cap. With $13 million in dead cap space, that’s hard to do.
“So there is going to be a lot of movement between the Iowa Wild and the Minnesota Wild. And also between us and the Iowa Wild, because they are going to need guys to fill in positions on the fly as we go forward. We’ve really used that to our advantage this summer, because as a player, that’s what you’re looking for when you are playing in professional hockey: an opportunity. We can provide that opportunity, especially the opportunity to move up.”
The Heartlanders will conduct a free-agent tryout camp in late September at Xtream Arena. The 2022-23 regular season begins with home games Oct. 21 and 22 against the Idaho Steelheads.
“So we’ve kind of pegged who we want, who we believe is our core group of guys that will help us build upon what we started last year,” Damon said. “Then as we build those core pieces, we can build around them. Fill in the pieces to where we feel it will give us the best chance to win the Kelly Cup next year.”
In off-ice news, Tom Hamilton has replaced retiring Brian McKenna as President and CEO of the Heartlanders. Hamilton is an Iowa City West graduate who spent more than three decades with Hy-Vee before retiring.
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