Zach White: The Iowa Heartlanders’ determined, unselfish forward
At 5-foot-7, White wasn’t expecting to make the ECHL. Now, during his second year in the league, he’s doing whatever he can on and off the ice to meet expectations.
December 13, 2022
The Iowa Heartlanders were in dire need of an extra forward before a matchup with the Toledo Walleye about a year ago.
Then-Heartlanders head coach Gerry Fleming and assistant coach Derek Damon talked to Nick Niedert, the head coach of the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Vermilion County Bobcats in Danville, Illinois. Niedert recommended they sign one of his skaters: Zach White.
Initially, Iowa wasn’t convinced White was a good option. At 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, White — who had never competed in the ECHL before — would likely be the smallest player on any given night.
In 2020-21, the right-handed shooter suited up for the Carolina Thunderbirds in the Federal Prospects Hockey League, which is two tiers below the ECHL and marks the bottom of North American professional hockey.
But the Bobcats’ coach knew White belonged in affiliated hockey, even if his resume suggested otherwise.
“I said, ‘You guys need a roster player,’” Niedert said. “‘If you don’t like him, that’s fine, whatever. Just trust me on this one.’”
So, the Heartlanders agreed to terms with White, and the Milford, Connecticut, product arrived in Coralville at about 5:30 p.m. the day before his debut.
At 5-12-2-1, the Heartlanders were an ECHL laughingstock when they signed White. Iowa suffered a humiliating 4-0 loss to the future Western Conference Champion Walleye at Xtream Arena on Dec. 8, 2021.
But the newest Heartlanders member became a hero in uplifting a struggling franchise as he delighted the crowd during his ECHL debut on Dec. 10.
Down 2-1, forward Yuki Miura found White in the near slot, and he attempted a one-timer that avoided Toledo goaltender Billy Christopoulos’ dive, tying the contest with fewer than five minutes left. Iowa won the game, 3-2, in a shootout.
“It’s always exciting to score your first goal in your first game,” White said postgame. “So, I’m just happy to be here and help the team out when I can.”
Damon served as the acting head coach that night with Fleming in health and safety protocols. Damon called Niedert soon after the final horn blared.
“He’s laughing,” Niedert said. “He’s like, ‘Whitey’s not going anywhere.’ I was like, ‘I told you.’”
With his determination on and off the ice, White has become a Heartlanders’ fan-favorite who doesn’t take a day in the ECHL for granted.
‘That’s why you’re at where you’re at’
On an unusually warm, 70-degree Nov. 9 sunny day, White and Heartlanders Director of Communications David Fine, who also broadcasts the games, head to the Coralville Perkins. At lunch time, the clientele is made up of senior citizens — not the Heartlanders’ target audience.
For food, White requests the Fabulous Five, which includes two bacon strips. He chooses the chocolate chip pancakes instead of toast and selects his eggs over easy.
Leading up to Nov. 9, White hadn’t had the best season. At the time, he recorded a goal and an assist through seven games, and the Heartlanders won their first 2022-23 contest three days before. He was the first skater to agree to terms with the Heartlanders ahead of their second season. Yet, on a more balanced roster, the Heartlanders sometimes put White as an extra forward like he was when he first joined the franchise.
As a center, wingers Kris Bennett and Ryan Kuffner flanked White last season. Bennett won the 2021-22 ECHL Rookie of the Year award and now competes in the top two leagues in Switzerland, while Kuffner is a former NHL skater who’s currently in Germany’s top division. It was lining up with those two that made White realize he made it in the ECHL.
“Now, I have no idea what I’m doing,” White says over his meal. “I guess I’m not doing too well, right, Fine?”
“You’re too hard on yourself,” Fine responds. “That’s why you’re at where you’re at.”
White’s mom, Dawn White, remembered when her independent son first learned to skate in West Haven, Connecticut, at 3 years old.
He was supposed to push a chair from one end of the ice to the other. Instead, White shoved the chair aside and skated on his own. The instructor told Dawn White she had a hockey player.
‘It’s easy to love that your kid wants to be just like Zach’
When Damon called White for the first time a year ago, he said the Heartlanders needed a goal scorer. White replied he didn’t know if he could score in the ECHL — but he found out the answer in his first game.
“He gives you everything he’s got every day,” Damon said, who now serves as Iowa’s head coach. “That’s the best part about Whitey is he’s a great guy to have in the locker room. He fit in well last year with Kuff and Benny, and he’s finding his way this year.”
Though White isn’t a Heartlanders captain or alternate captain, Iowa defenseman Riese Zmolek mentioned the 27-year-old is a leader in the locker room, bringing good energy and spirit every day. Heartlanders defenseman Kevin McKernan sees White as an outgoing guy.
“He’s always chatting and talking and joking,” McKernan said. “So, that’s the best thing you can have in the locker room, and he works very hard. He’s a good little role model for everyone else.”
When one of White’s teammates was cut in 2022-23, he didn’t see it as another transaction. Instead, White followed through on the characteristics he’s possessed since his childhood. He called his mother to tell her he felt bad for the released player and needed to take him out to dinner.
Zmolek noted the 5-foot-7 forward doesn’t play to his size and is willing to be physical. The average Heartlander is 6-foot-1.
“He’s quick, fast,” Zmolek said. “He’s a good playmaker. He’s always around the puck.”
When White matched up against the Kansas City Mavericks on Dec. 27, 2021, he recorded a Gordie Hawk hat trick — a goal, an assist, and a fight.
“I haven’t had many fights, but the ones I’ve been into, it’s a little nerve racking seeing as I’m a smaller guy,” White said that night. “It was fun. It’s good energy. I know the boys like it when the small guy fights.”
It’s not just with hockey players White makes a positive connection. When Backpocket Brewing — a brewery across the street from Xtream Arena — hosted a meet and greet event with Heartlanders players and hockey operations staff, White made himself comfortable with multiple fans. If the franchise has an event at a local Pizza Ranch, White shows up.
Emily Meyer, who claims she is White’s biggest fan, talked to him multiple times last season at Backpocket Brewing after games. She said White made it easy for her and her husband to learn the game of hockey as new fans.
“Sometimes with athletes, they kind of have a cocky attitude, but I really don’t get that from him,” Meyer said. “He’s just really down to earth and I think especially for Iowa, Iowa kind of embodies that. So, I think he fits right in.”
The franchise’s dentist, David Gugliano, invited Dash — the Heartlanders’ deer mascot — to his son Cole’s birthday party during training camp. While White wasn’t required to show up, he still did because he wanted to give back to young fans.
“My son asked me if he could be like Zach White when he grew up,” Gugliano wrote to The Daily Iowan. “And honestly, you look at everything Zach is on and off the ice, and it’s easy to love that your kid wants to be just like Zach.”
Now as the SPHL’s Macon Mayhems bench boss, Niedert checks Iowa’s box score every game to see how White performed. They touch base when they can throughout the season.
“Zach did so much stuff I was doing when I was a player,” Niedert said. “Just being there for the teammates and team-first mentality. He really gets it. He really gives a s— about his teammates. That being said, that’s why I was pushing so hard for him to get an opportunity at the next level, because he does all the right things. He’s a go-getter. He deserves everything he’s gotten.”
The ECHL may be the end of the road for White — he’s unlikely to progress to a more prestigious league. He’s planning to marry his fiancé, Gabi Marhoffer, in 2023. Dawn White said her son was considering becoming a Massachusetts state trooper after college, though White isn’t sure if he wants to join law enforcement yet.
Instead, the skater who was told he would never make it in hockey suggested he may try to become a coach whenever he steps off the ice the last time as a professional. Over the offseason, he earned extra cash by working with children on their skating.
“It’s just that you get so used to a routine and a schedule, and I love that,” White said. “To get away from that, it gives me anxiety.”