2023 Wichita Thunder vs Iowa Heartlanders

Iowa Heartlanders Enduring Uphill Battle In ECHL Central Division

Iowa Heartlanders Enduring Uphill Battle In ECHL Central Division

An expansion team that entered the ECHL prior to the start of last season, the Iowa Heartlanders were thrust into arguably the league’s best division.

Mar 22, 2023 by Mike Ashmore
Iowa Heartlanders Enduring Uphill Battle In ECHL Central Division

It was always going to be an uphill battle for the Iowa Heartlanders.

An expansion team that entered the ECHL prior to the start of last season, the Minnesota Wild affiliate was thrust directly into arguably the league’s best division, the Central.

The Heartlanders finished their debut campaign in last place, despite being in contention for a playoff berth until the final few weeks of the regular season.

This year?

It’s more of the same, with Iowa languishing in the Central Division’s basement with a 16-32-12-1 record heading into the stretch drive for the Kelly Cup Playoffs – something they won’t be a part of, once again.

While it may not look like it, however, things slowly but surely seem to be on the way up.

Head coach Derek Damon has seen it all, first as an assistant last season and now as the team’s bench boss, and he is hopeful what he’s helped build from the ground up finally is starting to emerge as one of the league’s more competitive teams.

“It’s been a very challenging year in some respects, due to injuries and call-ups, but that’s part of the business,” Damon told FloHockey via cellphone. “That’s the one good thing about trying to become a coach, a young coach, is you get to learn on the fly in the (ECHL) because you wear so many hats.”

Along with his day-to-day responsibilities as the team’s leader, Damon also sees himself as a recruiter and a strategist. Rosters often are fluid, so coaches don’t always know who is going to be available or if they’ll even have a complete squad. It’s all about finding ways to win with what you have.

“We’ve had our ups and downs this year, but we’re heading in the right direction, and we’re building a culture here, a culture that fits the mindset of the people in this area in the corridor,” he added. “It’s a hard-working area. The people here are great. They’re hard-working, honest people. That’s the type of team that we want here – a team that’s going to bring it every day.  We’re building a culture that will hopefully take care of itself for years to come.”

The 42-year-old Damon certainly knows what winning looks like.

After a lengthy and successful playing career that took him to the NCAA Frozen Four and to the postseason multiple times as a pro, he stepped into the coaching ranks for the first time as an assistant under Gerry Flemming, whom he played for early in his career with the Florida Everblades, before taking over for him prior to the start of this season.

But with a young team and helping get seven players get promoted to the American Hockey League with the Iowa Wild, the club has faced various roster challenges throughout the season.

Factor in that the Heartlanders are in a deep division that features three of the top six teams in the most recent FloHockey ECHL power rankings, and it’s been a slow burn to try to replicate his winning ways on the coaching side.

The strength and depth of the division make for competitive matchups and tight games, and while the success may not have been immediate for the Heartlanders, they’re able to learn from each outing and are beginning to understand what it takes to win in professional hockey.

“If we keep trending in this direction, I feel like we’re going to have a really solid hockey team next year,” said Damon, who cited multiple first- or second-year players he’s seen make big jumps this season. “This makes you a better coach, makes you a better person, makes you a better group. We have to bring it every night to be able to win because t’s a very good division.”