Jeff Heimel left Minnesota for Arizona to play junior hockey, and later he began his coaching career with the Phoenix Polar Bears. Heimel has since taken on the task of trying to turn around the struggling Great Falls Americans franchise in Montana, and he has turned to the Phoenix area for help in doing so.
The Americans, who won just one game in the American West Hockey League in 2011-12, the season before Heimel’s arrival, are off to a 9-0 start with the help of three leaders from the Phoenix area.
Defenseman Donovan Mattfeldt is the team captain while forwards Lucas Lomax and Eric Gattson are part of the team’s top scoring line while ranking in the top six in the league in scoring.
Heimel said he would not have thought of Phoenix and California, where the team also landed three players, as markets to seek out hockey players a decade ago, before he went to Phoenix.
“Those markets are just great,” he said. “I absolutely expect to keep getting players from there.”
Lomax and Gattson arrived a year ago for Heimel’s first season in charge of Great Falls. The rebuilding process has bolted ahead this season.
“We kind of built last year for this year,” Heimel said of a team that went 16-30-1-1 and missed the playoffs in the 2012-13 season. “It was a lot of work to find those guys. Obviously, it was a good turnaround last year from the year prior to that.”
Heimel then sought to further bolster the roster this season, including adding more experience.
“It was about finding guys who could complement guys we had been working with last year,” Heimel said. “It’s a good start so far. We have a great group and we’re real excited about the way the team’s going.”
Part of that process was getting Mattfeldt, an assistant captain and the top-scoring defenseman with the Missoula Maulers, a team that made the AWHL playoffs last season but is no longer part of the AWHL. Heimel said Mattfeldt handles the role of Great Falls team captain well — on and off the ice.
“He’s just a natural leader,” the coach said. “He’s a guy who does community service on his own without being asked.”
Mattfeldt has been busy with the Americans, racking up the minutes in 5-on-5 situations and as a key member of both special teams. He is part of a defense that allowed just one goal in the first four games, and he leads that unit in scoring with seven assists.
Lomax, an assistant captain, is coming off a weekend in which he scored three points in each of the three games to move up to third in the league in scoring with 21 points in nine games. He had 33 points for the Americans last season when he was the squad’s second-leading scorer.
“He’s really quick,” Heimel said. “He’s got great finish. He’s a two-way player and a good assist guy.”
Gattson has made great strides since scoring just two goals last season. He finished 2012-13 strong, getting eight assists in the last five games after having just six in his first 36.
Gattson arrived in Montana last season thanks to Lomax, who suggested his friend to Heimel. Now Gattson centers the top line with Lomax on the right wing and Aaron McInnis on the left.
McInnis and Lomax each have 10 goals while Gattson has a team-high 12 assists to go along with his six goals. He has seven points in his last two games.
“He was just kind of a shy player when he got here,” Heimel said of Gattson, who he describes as the team’s most improved player. “He’s out of his shell now. He’s carrying the puck a ton.
“His vision is great. He sets up Lomax and McInnis quite a bit. He’s getting better scoring, but he’s just the glue that holds that line together. He’s great on faceoffs. He’s strong defensively.”
Gattson has become a vital part of a team that is dominating the early season, outscoring opponents, 57-14.