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Gerry Fleming: A hockey life
Iowa Heartlanders head coach talks about growing up in Montreal, playing for the Canadiens as an enforcer and his long career as a professional coach
CORALVILLE — Gerry Fleming was named the first head coach of the minor-pro Iowa Heartlanders hockey team last summer.
The 55-year-old grew up in Montreal, his father a heavy machine mechanic for the city who also had a part-time job as a security guard at the old Montreal Forum. That was the historic home of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens.
Fleming would go on to play seven seasons of professional hockey, including 11 games for his beloved hometown team as an enforcer, a physical 6-foot-5, 240-pound winger. He transitioned into coaching at the end of his career in the late 1990s.
This is his 24th year behind the bench as either an assistant or head man. His experiences are extensive: nearly 350 wins as a head coach in the ECHL for the Heartlanders and Florida Everblades, four years as a head coach for Oklahoma City and Bakersfield of the American Hockey League, helping develop the top minor leaguers in the Edmonton Oilers system, and three years as an assistant coach for Eisbaren Berlin in Germany’s pro league, prior to returning to North America this season.
His is a hockey life and a pretty fascinating one.
Fleming sat down recently to discuss some of his experiences as a player and coach. Below is a lightly edited version of that discussion.
Question: If I had told you 20 years ago, you’d be coaching hockey in Coralville, Iowa, of all places, what would you have said?
Answer: Great. Sure (laughs). Iowa’s great. I love it here. It’s been fantastic. Easy. No traffic. Good pace of life, people are nice. You’ve got everything you need.
Q: When did you know this was going to be your life? Hockey would be your life?
A: About five years ago (laughs). I don’t know. Like most things in life for people, you just kind of fall into it. I knew it was something I wanted to do. I’ve just been blessed to be given the opportunity, really. That’s the way I feel.
Q: What was it like growing up in Montreal?
A: It was the best. Back in the early 70s and 80s, you’d take a dime, hit the bus and go downtown with your buddies, run around the Metros, go to museums, speak French and English. At the time, you don’t think about it. You don’t process what an advantage it is to learn another language without ever really trying to learn another language. It was just second nature. So that was a blessing. Montreal is a fabulous city, and it’s always going to be home.
Q: Do you remember the first time you attended a Canadiens game?
A: The first time I went to a Canadiens game, it was a matinee: Detroit and Montreal on a Sunday afternoon. My dad and I went, I would have been 6 or 7. I just remember going into The Forum, and it just seeming so massive. Everybody kind of dressing up in shirts and ties and fedoras, it was just an event to go to ... Just the buzz outside the arena. The guys selling programs. It’s something you’ll always remember.
Q: OK, now fast forward a few years. You put on that sweater for the first time as a player and realize “I’m playing for the Montreal Canadiens!” What is going through your mind?
A: Surreal ... I don’t want to say you’re taken aback, but you are just kind in awe of the whole thing. Your first experience there, you’re playing and sitting beside Patrick Roy. Johnny LeClair was on that team, Guy Carbonneau, Kirk Muller, Brian Bellows, Eric Desjardins. You’re sitting beside these guys, who in some cases you (admired) in juniors as an adolescent. Now you’re playing with them. So you’re kind of in awe. When you do finally get out there (on the ice), you just focus on keeping the game as simple as possible.
Fleming played for the Verdun Junior Canadiens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (known as The Q), then for the University of Prince Edward Island. He took a redshirt year, playing in the New Brunswick Senior Hockey League, where he caught the attention of Paulin Bordeleau, head coach of the AHL’s Fredericton Canadiens, Montreal’s top minor league affiliate.
Bordeleau called him and offered him an invitation to try out for the team. Fleming said he scored two goals in his first game, against Springfield, which eventually led to a full-fledged AHL contract with Fredericton in the 1991-92 season.
“They ended up signing me, and here I am,” he said. “I ended up getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. I use that as a coach, for sure.“
The vast majority of Fleming’s professional playing career was spent with Fredericton, with the exception of five games with Montreal in the 1993-94 season and six more in the 1994-95 season.
He had no goals or assists in those 11 games and 42 penalty minutes. His best overall season was in 1992-93, when he had nine goals, 17 assists and 262 penalty minutes in 64 games.
Q: Did you always know your role as a player would be one of protecting your teammates, of playing physically?
A: Yeah, that’s what I offered. It wasn’t my skill set, by any means. My skating abilities or anything like that. But I could get up and down, and I understood the game, you know what I mean? I was a responsible player. At the NHL level, you’re playing against the best players in the world. So in order to stay, I had to do what I had to do. I don’t think anybody gets into hockey for the fighting. You just start playing. It’s kind of like life: it evolves, it kind of happens, and that’s the way it was ... You just go out, and you battle through it. That’s what you’ve got to do.
Q: When was your first NHL scrap?
A: Tie Domi, in Winnipeg when he was with the Jets. He got in front of our bench, and it just kind of happened. We got going a little bit. It was more of a scuffle than a fight.
Q: The game is different now, about speed and skill. The enforcer role has been pretty much eliminated. Are you OK with that?
A: I do think there is a role for that type of player. Like a Ryan Reaves in New York with the Rangers. A guy who can get up and down, play the game, eat some minutes, but be a physical presence ... It’s just nice to have that player who can get up and down but who says ‘Hey, if you’re going to run our best players, I’m going to run your best players, I’m going to run you, I’m going to handle this because it’s unacceptable.’ So I do think there is a role (for an enforcer). But you can’t have that guy who is just one dimensional, who can only fight. That’s gone the way of the dodo. You’ve got to be able to skate, you’ve got to be able to think the game, you’ve got to be able to play the game, you’ve got to have a skill set, but you’ve got to have that (physical) presence. Then you’re useful.
Q: Your first chance to coach came at Fredericton, and it all just kind of progressed from there, right?
A: Yeah, an assistant with (former longtime NHL head coach) Michel Therrien. I got lucky. A lot of people helped me, and I’m grateful for all those people who sacrificed. This is a great job, a great life, whether you’re in the ECHL or you’re coaching junior. Coaching hockey, you get to be around young guys, you’re mentoring them. It’s a gift, it’s been a blessing. I’m grateful, I really am.
Q: What took you over to Germany?
A: I just wanted to go over there. It was time, the sports director over there in Berlin was someone I had played with.
Q: When did you become aware of this franchise starting, and what attracted you to the job?
A: I was aware of it during (last) season, but, at the time, I was focused on what we were doing. The opportunity presented itself, and I wanted to come back, get my foot back in the door here (in North America). It was a great opportunity. A brand-new franchise, a brand-new everything. So, yeah, it was a perfect fit for me.
Q: Have you changed much as a coach over the years?
A: You have to. If some coach tells you they’ve got it figured out, they’re lying to you ... There is always something to learn. There are new experiences every day. Every day, you are learning something new.
Q: I’m guessing you literally do this year to year? Do you have goals in the sport you’d still like to achieve?
A: Yeah, I’d like to get to the NHL. For sure. Coach in the best league in the world, coach the best players. These guys are tremendous athletes, world class .. So, yeah, I’d definitely like to get to the NHL. Absolutely.
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