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Iowa Heartlanders comparatively ahead of the game on-ice wise in Year 2
ECHL hockey club in midst of setting roster for opening night next week
CORALVILLE — No comparison.
As the Iowa Heartlanders prepare for the beginning of their second season, they’re ahead of the game on-ice wise from a year ago.
“It’s night and day. Night and day,” Head Coach/General Manager Derek Damon said Wednesday night, after his team had completed an intra-squad scrimmage at Xtream Arena. “You can’t even compare. I think to the people who have been around and that have seen it since day one, they recognize the strides that we’ve made as an organization on and off the ice.
“We’re trying to put the best team that we can out there on the ice to help us compete for a Kelly Cup. I think we have a lot of good pieces in there.”
Damon was an assistant coach for the Heartlanders last season and has taken over for Gerry Fleming, who took a head coaching job with a club in Germany. Damon’s assistant this season is Joe Exter (his title actually is associate head coach), who was an assistant coach for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the 2006-07 season.
Exter most recently was an assistant coach at Michigan State University.
“Joe and I were just talking, there are a lot of good pieces out there, a lot of things we can build on off of tonight,” Damon said. “Our decision is tough on some of these guys. It’s not easy telling a guy that he can’t realize his dream right now. It’s not something we enjoy doing in this business. But, again, if we want to get to where we want to be, we have to make those tough decisions.”
The Heartlanders must have their roster down to 21 players by next week. Their regular-season opener is Friday and Saturday, Oct. 21 and 22, against the Idaho Steelheads at Xtream Arena.
Iowa went 29-33-9-1 in its inaugural season, finishing seventh and last in the Central Division. A cavalcade of different players came in and out, not unusual in the ECHL, especially for a first-year franchise.
The opening-night roster has not been set, but returning players at forward could include Zach White, Jake Smith, Cole Stallard and Yuki Miura. On defense, Riese Zmolek is a certainty to be on the roster.
There is experience at goaltender as well, with Hunter Jones, who is on a NHL contract with the parent Minnesota Wild. Kris Bennett, the club’s two leading scorer a season ago and an all-league pick, is playing in Europe this winter.
“I think this team is going to be an extremely good skating team,” said Stallard, who had 12 goals and 25 points in 60 games in 2021-22. “I think we’re going to be a fast team, really push the pace this year on teams. I think it’s going to catch a lot of teams off guard. I don’t think they’re going to expect us to rebound as much as we’re going to this year.”
Damon signed a number of players to ECHL contracts in the offseason. Among the more interesting are forward James Sanchez, who has experience in the higher-level American Hockey League, and forward Alec Broetzman, a two-year team captain at Michigan Tech University.
The AHL’s Iowa Wild has assigned Zmolek and forwards Kevin Conley and Patrick Curry to the Heartlanders to begin the season. All are on AHL contracts.
“All those guys are impactful players, and that’s what they’re supposed to be coming down from the American Hockey League,” Damon said. “We feel like our American Hockey League contract guys are really going to help us impact the game.”
“I think Dames did a tremendous job this offseason,” Zmolek said. “Even just seeing, I knew some of the guys just from playing against them (previously), the job he’s done building what we have. Everyone, each day, he’s just talking about getting better, taking a step in the right direction. I think there will be some huge improvements. I know we’re all excited.”
Damon said it was easier this summer to sell guys on the Heartlanders, as you’d imagine.
“Last year, it was hard because we didn’t have a tangible product,” he said. “It was hard for guys to really commit to coming here (because) ‘I don’t know. I’ve never heard of the Heartlanders.’
“We were late to the game (on top of that). But this year, we worked hard, with our reputation, it started with Gerry last year. The way Gerry coached, the way Gerry carried his business last year. He built a reputation where it was easy for us making phone calls this year.”
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