Defenseman Riese Zmolek returning to Iowa Heartlanders

An alternate captain for the Heartlanders in their inaugural season, the blueliner has signed an ECHL contract with the club for the 2022-23 season.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa defenseman Riese Zmolek enters the ice after his name was announced in the starting lineup during a hockey match between Iowa and Wheeling at Xtream Arena in Coralville on Wednesday, April 6, 2022. The Nailers defeated the Heartlanders, 6-4.

Isaac Goffin, Sports Reporter

One of the Iowa Heartlanders’ top defensemen from their inaugural campaign is set to return for the 2022-23 season.

Riese Zmolek has signed an ECHL contract with the Heartlanders, the franchise announced Thursday. He is the first defenseman to reach a deal with the club for the upcoming campaign.

In his first professional season, Zmolek competed on a one-year, two-way contract with the AHL’s Iowa Wild. He spent most of the year with the Heartlanders as an alternate captain, compiling four goals and 15 assists over 45 games. The left-handed shooter also competed in 10 games and notched two assists with the Wild.

Zmolek said he told recently named Heartlanders head coach Derek Damon — who was their assistant coach last season — over the past few weeks that if he ended up in the ECHL again, he would love to return to Coralville.

“I mean he was great to me,” Zmolek said of Damon on July 8. “I learned so much from him day in and day out, so I thought it was a good fit and he thought this would be a good fit for me and try to propel me into the next level.

Damon and Zmolek already discussed what drills he’ll work on after practice, as Zmolek has learned he must find extra time to stay sharp during the strenuous professional schedule.

RELATED: Forward Zach White re-signs with Iowa Heartlanders

He said his offensive game has started to grow, and he’s trying to skate faster while maintaining a strong defensive skill set.

The blueliner from Rochester, Minn., has been a force to be reckoned with while patrolling the ice for the Heartlanders. Zmolek led the club last season with 97 penalty minutes.

His most memorable infractions included a match penalty for  attempt/deliberate injury at the end of the Heartlanders’ contest versus the Utah Grizzlies on Feb. 12, and a fighting call during the ECHL’s most penalized contest of 2021-22 against the Fort Wayne Komets on Feb. 26.

“Riese has the type of leadership and buy-in that allowed him to have an immediate, positive impact on our team in his first season,” Damon said via a release. “We had a young team, but he earned the right to be an alternate captain for us and led by example. He has a lot to offer us on the ice as a two-way defenseman that plays with grit and should be in our top-four this season.”

There’s a chance Zmolek could become the second captain in Heartlanders history. Forward Kris Bennett, who was Iowa’s captain last season, is not expected to rejoin the club because Damon said he will play in Switzerland. Zmolek previously served as a captain with the United States Hockey League’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in 2016-17 and at Minnesota State-Mankato in 2020-21.

Regardless of Zmolek’s leadership status in 2022-23, he agrees with Damon that the end goal for the Heartlanders is to win the Kelly Cup. Iowa failed to qualify for the 2022 Kelly Cup Playoffs after finishing 29-33-9-1.

“We’ve got to make a few big steps and be more consistent on a nightly basis no matter who’s in the lineup, who’s not,” Zmolek said. “I know we had some injuries, there’s guys up and down, all over the place last year, but I think just being more consistent, whoever’s in that lineup, put their best foot forward to keep us going in the right direction.”

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