If the hockey side could ever catch up with the business side, the Iowa Wild would be perennial playoff participants in the American Hockey League.
The minor league affiliate had the fewest points in the league the past two seasons and was the worst team in the Western Conference during its inaugural season three years ago, but hockey fans in Des Moines give it continued support.
This is where new coach Derek Lalonde comes in.
“They’ve done such a good job in the community — the only thing they lack is the wins,” said Lalonde.
After spending the first week at Minnesota’s camp absorbing coach Bruce Boudreau’s system, Lalonde opens Iowa’s camp Friday.
“People keep showing up, so we have to add some winning down there,” he said. “It’s a priority, it’s something I’m going to stress, it’s something I’m going to hold guys accountable for.”
In his first training camp meeting, Boudreau told likely Iowa-bound players, “We’re going to win in Iowa.”
Boudreau doesn’t believe players can learn anything from losing except bad habits. Wild brass knows it’s essential that Iowa starts to win, and for the past few years, they kept hearing Lalonde’s name. His energy and intelligence “jumped across the table” when Brent Flahr, the Wild’s assistant GM who doubles as Iowa’s GM, and Brad Bombardir, the Wild’s director of player development, first sat down with him.
“Just a real impressive interview,” Flahr said. “Very knowledgeable; very, very detailed; positive; and he’s won.”
Lalonde, 44, is a former goalie at SUNY-Cortland who had aspirations of being a gym teacher and high school hockey coach.
“That seemed like a pretty good life,” said the native of upstate New York.
But his hockey coaching career took off instead. He was a graduate assistant and assistant coach at three Division III schools, including Hamilton College, where he met his wife, Melissa, the head soccer coach. Today, they have three children.
Lalonde caught his first big break in 2002 by replacing current Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill as Bob Daniels’ assistant at Ferris State. They won the school’s first CCHA championship. After four years there, Lalonde joined George Gwozdecky’s staff at University of Denver, where he worked with Wild winger Jason Zucker.
“Just a great coach,” said Zucker. “Fun guy to be around. Demanding guy, but fun, too.”
After five years at Denver, Lalonde was eager to become a head coach and moved on to Green Bay of the United States Hockey League. In his first season the Gamblers lost nine games and won the Clark Cup.
“He has lots of personality and jokes,” said Wild prospect Gustav Olofsson, who played for Lalonde in Green Bay. “The first meeting here, everyone saw it. Before Traverse City [site of the prospects tournament], he shows us the ‘Anchorman’ fight. He has a special connection with all the players and knows how to get the best out of everyone.”
Many USHL coaches use that as a springboard to college, but Lalonde went to Toledo of the East Coast Hockey League.
“I’m intrigued by the pro athlete, the pro approach. It seemed to be more coaching than in college, where it’s more recruiting and administration,” said Lalonde. “I loved it. I loved dealing with professionals, adults, a level of maturity, being able to be direct with them, demand accountability.”
Toledo went from worst to first and made a league-record 58-point improvement during his first season in 2014-15. In two years, he won 97 games and consecutive Eastern Conference and North Division regular-season championships.
“I feel like there are a lot of similarities to the challenge in Iowa,” said Lalonde, who had interviews for a handful of AHL head-coaching and NHL assistant jobs the past 12 months.
Last season, Iowa finished with 59 points and league-low 169 goals. Two years ago, it had 59 points and 172 goals, tied for the fewest amount in the West. Three years ago, Iowa had 67 points and a league-low 169 goals.
Yet despite an all-time 32-69-7-6 (.337 points percentage) home record, Iowa has been supported by nearly 6,000 fans per game, which ranks in the top of half of the AHL.
“I’m an extension of [Boudreau’s] staff, and our priority is development and getting guys ready to come up [to Minnesota]. We will have guys ready,” Lalonde insisted. “But it is time to win.”
Iowa wanted to sign a No. 1 center, No. 1 defenseman and No. 1 goalie that could also serve as the Wild’s backup if needed. Lalonde feels Minnesota accomplished that by signing minor league vets Pat Cannone, Victor Bartley and Alex Stalock.
Steve Michalek will serve as Stalock’s backup, with Adam Vay going to ECHL Quad City.
Several prospects will be first-year pros, including Sam Anas, Mario Lucia, Adam Gilmour, Pavel Jenys, Nick Seeler, Hunter Warner and Alex Tuch (if he doesn’t make the big club) and Chase Lang (if he doesn’t return to his junior team).
“The timing is good for me to come here,” Lalonde said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but I will try to install a culture where guys want be held accountable and want to win.”
And, of course, being a former goalie, Lalonde may be the rare coach who doesn’t find a way to pin every loss on the netminder.
“I am very goalie friendly,” he said, laughing. “In Toledo, guys joked that, ‘You know there’s other guys on the team besides the goalies.’ I’m probably too protective of the goalies sometimes.”
So, at a minimum, Stalock should love him.