Iowa Heartlanders bring back defenseman Connor Russell

The physical blueliner recorded five assists in 28 games with the Heartlanders in 2021-22.


Larry Phan

Iowa defender Connor Russell and Utah forward Benjamin Tardif go for the puck during a hockey match between the Iowa Heartlanders and the Utah Grizzlies at Xtream Arena in Coralville on Feb. 9, 2022. The Grizzlies beat the Heartlanders, 5-4, in overtime.

Isaac Goffin, Sports Reporter

Iowa Heartlanders head coach Derek Damon’s message to defenseman Connor Russell this offseason was one the blueliner described as intriguing.

The words: We’re going to win a Kelly Cup.

That statement, coupled with Russell’s positive experience with the Heartlanders in 2021-22, made the 26-year-old decide to return to the franchise for the 2022-23 campaign, the team announced Thursday.

The right-handed shooter competed in 28 contests for the Heartlanders last season after the Greenville Swamp Rabbits traded him on Feb. 8.

With Russell roaming the blue line, the Heartlanders went on a seven-game winning streak from February to March, their best stretch of the season.

“That’s when hockey’s really fun,” Russell said of the midseason streak. “Everyone’s coming to the rink happy, everyone’s having a good time, we’re winning games, and it’s just a great atmosphere. I think going into next year, I think if we can build on that, that’s going to be key for us.”

Russell went through a turbulent 2021-22. He started the season as a fifth-year senior at Brock University — a U Sports member in St. Catharines, Ontario. When COVID-19 policy prevented Brock from competing, Russell chose to start his professional career while remaining enrolled in college — recently graduating with a business communication major and management minor.

He joined the Swamp Rabbits on Jan. 6 and the defenseman found playing time in six affairs but didn’t record a goal or an assist, though he spent six minutes in the penalty box.

As a Heartlander, Russell notched five assists and averaged almost two penalty minutes per game.

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“When we acquired Connor last season, we knew he’d be able to provide us some valuable shutdown traits, a physical edge and improve as his rookie season went along,” Damon said in a release. “We saw exactly that as he became more accustomed to the professional game. This offseason sets Connor up with a great opportunity to elevate his game to that next level. He’s going to have an opportunity to demonstrate the strides he’s taken, and we expect he will meet that challenge and again be a strong member of our defensive corps.”

Russel, who has been working with a skills coach, said his skills will be improved when he arrives at training camp in October.

The Guelph, Ontario, product’s last goal came back in 2019-20 when he was with the Dundas Real McCoys in Allan Cup Hockey — a senior hockey league.

“In today’s game, as a defenseman, you need to be a 200-foot d-man,” Russell said. “You need to be really strong in the d-zone but chipping in offensively. As long as the team gets a win, that’s what I’ll be working on.”

The Heartlanders previously announced they re-signed defensemen Riese Zmolek, Ryan Wheeler, and Jake Stevens. Zmolek was an alternate captain, while the Heartlanders picked up Wheeler and Stevens late in the season after they finished their college campaigns.

With the currently released signings, Iowa could fill two defensive pairs in a lineup. ECHL franchises typically have three pairs available for a contest.

“They’re all great players,” Russell said. “So, it’s nice playing with those guys in the back end. You learn from them every day, just their habits. All very good skaters, very good with the puck, and I’m looking forward to playing with them again next year.”