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After Culture Change, Lalonde Hopes for Big Things in Iowa's Future

Last season, second-year coach led farm squad to most wins since club's move to Des Moines

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- The juxtaposition of an NHL team competing for a Stanley Cup can often run against its own American Hockey League franchise's championship aspirations.

For much of the 2016-17 campaign, the Minnesota Wild was among the NHL's best. Around the trade deadline, it was looking to beef up its roster in an effort to sustain a potentially lengthy postseason run.

Often, it came at the expense of its AHL club. 

When the Wild traded a first, a second and another conditional draft pick and prospect Grayson Downing to the Arizona Coyotes for Martin Hanzal and Ryan White on Feb. 26, many focused solely on the draft pick compensation.

About 400 miles southeast, Iowa Wild coach Derek Lalonde was coaching his team in a game in Chicago. Informed after the game about the trade, he grew anxious. Far from an offensive juggernaut to begin with, Downing's seven goals and 22 points over the first 47 games of the season were among the team's best. 

The following day, Minnesota made another trade with Arizona, sending Teemu Pulkkinen to the Coyotes for future considerations. 

Pulkkinen -- Iowa's lone All-Star selection (he did not play in the game and Iowa was represented by Alex Tuch) -- was the team's biggest goal-scoring threat and a proven difference maker at the AHL level. 

Later that morning, forward Zac Dalpe, whom Minnesota placed on waivers hoping to get him to Iowa, was claimed by the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

Lalonde was beside himself.

"Every time [Iowa General Manager] Brent Flahr called, the news got worse," said Lalonde, who said he couldn't help but feel a little sorry for himself.

Not long after, veteran defenseman Mike Weber went down with a lower-body injury and young forward Mario Lucia sustained an upper-body injury. 

Losing Lucia, one of the few offensive threats remaining after losing Downing, Pulkkinen and Dalpe was tough, but the loss of Weber stung perhaps the most. A respected veteran and beloved team captain, Weber's injury was a gut punch. 

"It was a devastating deadline for us last year," Lalonde said. "I don't care who you are, you lose your top two centers and three of your top six forwards, it's going to be tough."

As the text messages from players rolled in on deadline day, asking what was happening to their team, Lalonde quickly dumped the self pity, threw on his skates and headed out to practice. 

"It's not a bad thing when guys get dealt; it's just a reality, and you deal with it," Lalonde said. "We preach all the time, 'It doesn't matter what our lineup is, we're going to be confident when we play with that lineup and we're going to go win.'

"It's the reality, and I have no problem with it," Lalonde continued. "[Wild GM] Chuck [Fletcher] and Brent were very clear with me. And we may do it again this year, and if we do, awesome, because that means the big boys have a chance and that's truly what it's all about."


'Newsy'

Derek Lalonde has taken an unusual path to professional hockey. 

While continuing a standout career as a goaltender at SUNY-Cortland, a Division III school in upstate New York, his teammates gave him the nickname 'Newsy,' after the Hall-of Fame Canadian hockey player Newsy Lalonde. 

A native of Cornwall, Ontario, Newsy Lalonde was a star for the Montreal Canadiens during the NHL's infancy shortly after World War I and is considered one of the League's top players from its first half century.

Derek Lalonde was born in Brasher Falls, N.Y., about a 20 minute drive south from Cornwall. While Derek Lalonde and Newsy Lalonde share no family lineage, the surname carries a lot of weight in that area. 

Through college coaching stops at Ferris State University and Denver University, three years with the United States Hockey League's Green Bay Gamblers and two more with the East Coast Hockey League's Toledo Walleye, Derek's nickname, "Newsy," has stuck. 

"Other people say I look like a newsie, whatever that means," Lalonde said. "I swear though, some people don't know my first name. It's just, 'Newsy.' It's just kind of followed me."


Culture shock

Perhaps Lalonde's biggest challenge after accepting the Iowa head coaching job in the summer of 2016 was changing the losing culture around the franchise. 

The three years prior to his arrival was one of the worst stretches by one team in AHL history, as the team went 74-126-14-14 in its first three seasons after moving from Houston to Des Moines.

"I went into the [introductory] press conference, and you'd have to see it to believe it, but even the security guard was depressed, telling me how bad we were," Lalonde said. "I ran into a ticket sales person, a marketing person, and they were rolling their eyes."

A tough start to his first season didn't help matters.

"We started out 5-10 [last year], and 15-20, and it felt like and there were signs of, 'Here we go again,'" Lalonde said. 

The veteran coach, who won a championship in his first year as Green Bay's head coach and brought Toledo to the third round of the playoffs in his first ECHL season, knew changing that sense of inevitability would provide him with his biggest challenge yet.

It started out with little things, harping on small details during practice and nipping bad habits in the bud before they had an opportunity to blossom.

Eventually, those things started adding up, and Iowa started playing better. 

Once the calendar turned to 2017, Iowa went on a historic run, winning nine consecutive road games between Jan. 7 and Feb. 4, the longest road winning streak in franchise history and the second-longest road streak in the AHL last season.

During that span, Iowa lost in regulation just once and gained at least a point in the standings in 15 of 16 games. The club's 36 regular-season wins were its most since the Houston Aeros became the Iowa Wild in 2013.

For three years, Iowa was often viewed as easy points for an opponent. Now it was a postseason contender in the AHL's meaty Central Division. 

"We talked about it, but it was our veteran leadership core; Alex Stalock, Mike Weber, Max Fortunus, Pat Cannone, Jeff Hoggan ... those guys decided we were going to turn this thing around," Lalonde said. "That was extremely rewarding, because it was hard to change that culture. I was very disappointed that we were in the playoff [race] but didn't get in, but it was very rewarding in that we did change the culture."

In year two, Lalonde said he is most looking forward to taking what the team started last year and building on it. 

Of the group of Stalock, Weber, Fortunus, Cannone and Hoggan, the five combined to play just five games with Minnesota last season. But their impact on a culture change in Iowa, and their refusal to allow the stagnant status quo to continue, is a legacy they will leave -- and others will continue to build on -- in future years.

"Look at Zack Mitchell," cited Lalonde. "Zack Mitchell was so used to losing. And even Tyler Graovac. They were going up [to the NHL] with the sour face. Now, when those types of guys go up, and they've experienced winning, they've experienced a winning culture, it's healthy and I think it's a must."


Support system

Lalonde says he loves working with Boudreau, and the feeling is mutual. 

When the two met last year, Lalonde insisted on playing the same style and using the same systems Boudreau was going to be using in Minnesota, easing the transition for any player going back and forth between Des Moines and St. Paul during the season.

Lalonde is as competitive as they come. He played through a torn-up knee during the Wild's most recent prospect camp to win the club's annual pickleball championship, along with partner Brad Bombardir.

Nevermind that he and his wife, Melissa, were set to leave for Colorado to attend the wedding of Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak, whom Lalonde recruited to and coached at Denver. 

Derek and Melissa were leaving the kids at their grandparents' house for the week, and after the wedding, the two were to spend quality time in the Rocky Mountains enjoying a vacation.

Because of the injury, they stayed home, and Melissa spent what was supposed to be a week away with her husband instead waiting on him nonstop. 

"She says and my kids say I ruined their summer," Lalonde said with a laugh. "But that 99-cent plastic trophy was worth it."

With that in mind, it'd be easy for Lalonde to want to do things his own way, in an effort to pump up his own win-loss ledger. But the physical education instructor in him knows his role is one of teaching and preparing his players for the highest level. 

"He cares, both for the Wild in Iowa, but also for us [in Minnesota]," Boudreau said. "It's great that he wants to do things the same way we do them so there is no transition period for players coming up from Iowa. That's a big part of a coach who's really dedicated to the organization.

"Last year was Iowa's best year, and sometimes, they didn't have the players they probably would have liked to have had. But they kept hanging tough. A coach is a big part of that, in making them believe. And if you can make them believe, then usually good things happen."

At the Wild's hockey operations meetings over the summer, Boudreau insisted the front office do all it could to help bolster Lalonde's team in Iowa. An AHL coach himself for nine seasons, Boudreau understands better than most the value of a competitive American League team and one that has the positive, winning culture Lalonde has been fostering.

"It was a reality going in last year that we had to go in and turn something around. I saw it with practice habits, I saw it with approach, I saw it with the acceptance of losing early on. It was really hard work turning that around," Lalonde said. "Now, the culture has been changed, the expectations are different. 

"We're not going to be able to just open up the doors and win. But we've already turned that culture around, that expectation around. Now we want to build on it."

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