Opinion | The Iowa Heartlanders’ wild inaugural season

Though the Heartlanders finished last in the ECHL Central Division, they were on a chaotic ride in their inaugural season.


Jerod Ringwald

The Iowa heartlanders pose for a photo with members from the Family Dental Center, a sponsor of the Heartlanders, during a media availability for the Iowa Heartlanders at Xtream Arena on Monday, April 11, 2022. Players and sponsors gathered to take photos for the conclusion of the inaugural season.

Isaac Goffin, Sports Reporter

One adjective came to mind when I reflected on the Heartlanders’ inaugural season this week: wild.

The peaks and valleys and the twists and turns of their 2021-22 campaign were beyond what I could imagine when I stepped into Xtream Arena to take in the franchise’s first practice on Oct. 11.

First, I thought the Heartlanders competed like they didn’t belong in affiliated hockey. Then, Iowa appeared unbeatable during a seven-game win streak in the back half of the season. Ultimately, the Heartlanders fizzled out with a subpar 29-33-9-1 record that put them in the bottom of the ECHL Central Division.

Through my review of the chaos, I pinned two dates: Dec. 10 and March 23. The first designating the rise and the second representing the fall of Iowa’s first season.

I had little hope for the Heartlanders before their Dec. 10 contest against the Toledo Walleye at Xtream Arena. They demonstrated glimpses of success in their first 20 games, but at 5-12-2-1, they garnered a .325 points percentage.

The Heartlanders defeated the Walleye, 3-2, in a shootout victory on Dec. 10. The following day, Iowa completed a comeback, 3-2 victory against Toledo. At that point, I knew the Heartlanders belonged in the ECHL and had overcome their nightmarish 10-1 loss to Toledo on Oct. 29.

Downing the Walleye was not easy in the 2021-22 regular season, as they finished with a league-best 49-19-2-2 record.

Those two victories came when the Heartlanders had two players and head coach Gerry Fleming in COVID-19 protocols. They won on Dec. 10 with four defensemen — an improbable feat. The victories could not have come without a strong understanding and communication of their systems. The next-man-up mentality was working.

Despite numerous weekly roster changes, Iowa went 21-13-5-0 from Dec. 10 to March 19,— a .603 points percentage. The Heartlanders won nine of 10 games at one point during that stretch, creating the impression that the 2022 Kelly Cup Playoffs were coming to Coralville.

But I felt like I went back in time when Iowa played the Fort Wayne Komets on March 23. Though the Heartlanders put out a lineup that I could see them carrying into the postseason, they reverted to their early season ways.

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In front of their home fans, the Heartlanders appeared clueless. Iowa fell to Fort Wayne, 4-2, and the Heartlanders’ performance reminded me of that 10-1 blowout in the fourth contest of the season. Taking a combined eight shots on goal in two periods was the sign of doom for me. It was a miracle that goaltender Corbin Kaczperski stopped 39 pucks.

Fleming cut off my last question postgame and said his players needed to “get their heads out of their ass.”

The Heartlanders never fulfilled Fleming’s request long-term. From March 23 to the end of the season, Iowa compiled a 3-8-2-0 record — a .192 points percentage that marked a disappointing conclusion to the Heartlanders’ first campaign.

I won’t speculate what could’ve happened if the Heartlanders had forwards Kris Bennett and Ryan Kuffner — who combined for 137 points — for the entire year. I won’t write who I believe will return next season.

But I think the 2022-23 season will go better for the Heartlanders. After using 46 skaters and five goaltenders in the past year, it’s unlikely that Iowa will suffer through similar roster volatility next year.

Iowa put 41 rookies into the lineup in 2021-22. Iowa is almost ensured to have a more experienced roster next season, making the Heartlanders more equipped to handle the strenuous professional schedule consistently. So, it’s a realistic possibility the Heartlanders qualify for the playoffs in their second season.

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