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Aug. 19—Derek Damon's first two full professional hockey seasons were mostly played in the ECHL from 2006-08.
Now, the former Saint Dominic Regional High School (now Saint Dominic Academy) and University of Maine standout's first coaching job in professional hockey will be in the ECHL — which is the Double-A level of minor league hockey — with the Iowa Heartlanders, an expansion team and an affiliate of the Minnesota Wild of the NHL, after one year of coaching junior hockey with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the British Columbia Hockey League.
He has a history with the Heartlanders' head coach, Gerry Fleming, who was Damon's head coach in those first two professional hockey seasons in the ECHL with the Florida Everblades.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Gerry," Damon said. "In all my years of playing professional hockey, he's the coach that I had the most respect for and who I really value his coaching."
Damon said Fleming treats players with respect and shares his passion for hockey.
After those two years in Florida, Damon and Fleming's paths crossed again in Germany from 2018-20 when Damon's 14-year playing career was winding down. He was playing in the German second league, the Deutsche Eishockey Liga 2, while Fleming was a coach in the country's top league, the Deutsche Eishockey Liga.
That's where Damon let Fleming know that he was interested in going behind the bench once he hung up the skates.
"We stayed in contact in Germany too," Fleming said. "Derek would come to watch our games close to where he was playing, most of the time it was in Mannheim. We would meet up after the games and talk. Derek expressed to me during those meetings when we talked, he wanted to get into coaching and when the opportunity presented itself where I was in a position to bring him on board, I just did that."
Fleming was named Heartlanders head coach in late July and he has a history of working with coaches who have coached in Lewiston. In his time in Germany with Eisbären Berlin in 2018-19, he was an assistant coach under head coach Clem Jodoin, who coached the Lewiston Maineiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League from 2004-07. When Fleming was the head coach of the Bakersfield Condors of the American Hockey League from 2015-18, former Maineiacs head coach J.F. Houle (2009-11) was one of his assistant coaches. He also coached Houle with the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks of the ECHL in 2000-01.
Damon, a Bangor native, will be running the power play and working with the defensemen. Damon was a point producer at St. Dom's, helping the Saints to a 19-0-1 record en route to winning the 1999 Class A State Championship game. He put up 51 goals and 60 assists in 160 games with the Black Bears from 2002-2006 and scored 45 goals and had 78 assists in 107 games with the Everblades in his two seasons in the ECHL.
"Gerry is allowing me to go and handle the power play, which obviously was a big success and a big part of my game throughout my career and he recognizes that," Damon said. "He said: 'That's your baby, I really want you to grow and run with it.' I am excited to sink my teeth into the power play and see where it takes us."
Fleming said Damon's experience playing in the minors and in Europe will help him in the transition to coaching at the ECHL level because Damon knows the other duties that assistant coaches have to take on off the ice.
"In the ECHL, you wear a lot of different hats from travel (arrangements) to (getting) apartments (for players), to immigration, to setting up meals and getting hotels and running practices ... the list goes on-and-on," Fleming said. "You get your feet wet in every little aspect, not only coaching on the ice but in every department, you have to be involved in. It's a great training ground for any young coach to be in."
Iowa will not face the Maine Mariners this season. New Mariners new coach Ben Guite, another former UMaine standout, also played for Fleming with the Tiger Sharks in 2000-01.
Damon said he learned from his time with the Salmon Arm Silverback, even though the BCHL didn't have a full season because of the coronavirus pandemic, with just a preseason last fall and an end-of-the-season tournament in the spring.
There were a lot of practices in between.
"We kept every (player) engaged by doing a lot of skill development and player development and finding different resources to keep guys engaged, whether it's through mental training or a lot of different on-ice activities," Damon said.
Last season also reinforced that coaching was a path Damon really wanted to go down.
Prior to taking the job in Iowa, Damon applied for a few jobs in the United States Hockey League and was keeping an eye out at the college hockey level as well.
He was offered the University of Maine volunteer assistant coaching job by new head coach Ben Barr after Dennis "Red" Gendron died in April.
"I was keeping my eyes on it because I knew (former St. Dom's teammate and Auburn native) Joe Dumais was in the running," Damon said. "He did actually really well and I think it came down to him and Ben Barr. Ben Barr's reputation in college hockey speaks for itself, he's a tremendous recruiter. I think it's a great opportunity for him to get his head coaching experience.
"Yeah, I was definitely intrigued about what was going to happen, but at the end of the day, I am extremely happy where I am going. I am extremely happy going to an organization like the Iowa Heartlanders."