ST. PAUL — With an understanding that a professional hockey career was not in the cards, new Iowa Wild coach Derek Lalonde aspired to be a physical education teacher and a high school hockey coach.
Despite a solid playing career, including a Team MVP award as a senior at Division 3 SUNY-Cortland, Lalonde knew he needed to find a different path.
Lalonde enrolled at Massachusetts College and earned his Masters Degree in Education Administration. A career in teaching, and perhaps one day as an Athletic Director was surely coming.
He also was a graduate assistant hockey coach, an opportunity that lead to a job with Lebanon Valley College, that led to Hamilton College that led to his first real break in coaching: An assistant coaching gig under Bob Daniels at Ferris State University.
Derek Lalonde had officially become a hockey coach.
Lalonde’s passion for coaching grew out of his love for Ferris State, at the time, a middle of the road school in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association program overshadowed by in-state rivals like Michigan and Michigan State.
“We had that little brother mentality where we took a lot of pride in competing against Michigan and Michigan State,” Lalonde said. “I was a part of the first CCHA championship team at Ferris, and to finish ahead of the Michigans, the Michigan States, the Ohio States and Notre Dame, that was pretty special. I was hooked.”
After four years at Ferris, Lalonde moved on to the University of Denver, where he was able to learn from another one of college hockey’s great coaches, George Gwozdecky.
“I am very fortunate to spend time with two elite, historic, special-type coaches of college coaches in Bob Daniels and George Gwozdecky,” Lalonde said. “You take a little bit of who you are from spending time with those people and I’ve had an opportunity to spend nine years, between those guys, two of the most respected, smart, innovative coaches in the game. I took a lot from those guys.”
Another important influence in his life is his wife, Melissa, a former coach herself who Lalonde met when they were at Hamilton College. Melissa was the head soccer coach at Hamilton, then became an assistant coach at Central Michigan before assuming head coaching duties at Ferris when the couple was in Big Rapids, Mich.
“The best thing I ever did was marry a coach,” Lalonde said. “She’s very grounded. There’s times when you get too high or especially too low and she picks me up. You try your best to leave hockey at the rink and concentrate on family when you do go home. But it’s human nature, you do this for a living, the ups and downs of it and she understands it.”
His time in Denver also coincided with the birth of his three children, sons Alex (10), Luke (8) and daughter Abby (6). With a family to worry about and an admittedly high quality of life in the Mile High City, Lalonde passed on an opportunity for his first head-coaching gig.
The chance came in 2010 when current Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper stepped down as coach of the United States Hockey League (USHL) franchise in Green Bay to take a job in the American Hockey League.
Offered the job to succeed Cooper, one of his best friends, Lalonde turned it down. Almost immediately, he said he had regrets.
“My daughter was just born, it was late August and I ended up not being interested at the time,” Lalonde said. “But I wanted to be a head coach. And just in my growth, I needed to be a head coach.”
As luck would have it, the Green Bay job came open again a year later. This time, Lalonde jumped at the opportunity.
It didn’t take long for Lalonde to taste his first bite of success as a head coach. In his first season at the helm of the Gamblers, he led them to the Clark Cup Championship as USHL Champions. He was named the league’s Coach of the Year and earned his first job on the international scene as an assistant coach for Team USA in the World Junior A Challenge.
Lalonde spent three years in Green Bay before he was offered his first job in the pro ranks as head coach of the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye, an affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings.
“I don’t know how serious I ever was about the pro route,” Lalonde said. “When I was at Green Bay, I was getting those phone calls from athletic directors, I just kind of saw myself becoming a college head coach. It was a natural progression.”
Conversations with Cooper and Jeff Blashill, another of Lalonde’s good friends, opened his eyes to moving onto the professional game. Blashill was coach of the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids and franchise promised Lalonde an open door to Blashill and then-Detroit coach Mike Babcock.
“Some people might have raised their eyebrows about jumping from the USHL to the ECHL. At the time, Green Bay was one of the premier coaching jobs in junior hockey in all of North America,” Lalonde said. “At the time I was really excited about that but I didn’t realize how rewarding it was going to be to spend time with those guys. I grew immensely spending time with them.”
Lalonde led the Walleye to a regular season championship in his first season in Toledo and another Coach of the Year award. A North Division championship and a 47-20-2-3 record followed last season when Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher and Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr came calling.
“We talked to a lot of people and his name kept coming up as an up-and-coming guy,” Flahr said. “We met with him and very driven, very focused, very detailed. He has a lot of passion for the game and it was one of those things where, he was going to get an opportunity eventually and we thought it was a real good fit for us.”
Fletcher said Lalonde’s experience in the USHL as well as in college hockey is one of the things that made him an attractive candidate. It’s likely the same reason why coaches like Cooper, Blashill and Philadelphia Flyers Head Coach Dave Hakstol, who was hired last summer from the University of North Dakota, have been able to have success at the NHL level.
“It’s very important because you’re dealing with players who are 16 to 20 years of age, they’re all young kids, prospects who are trying to get ahead,” Fletcher said. “[Lalonde is] very familiar with the developmental world and he knows how to relate to younger players and that’s what the American Hockey League is all about.”
Lalonde interviewed for four different AHL jobs in the last year, including in San Diego last summer, where he had a chance to meet Bruce Boudreau, then coach of the Anaheim Ducks, San Diego’s parent club.
Development Camp has allowed Lalonde and Boudreau a chance to reconnect again and develop a relationship both personally and professionally.