This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of MemphiSport.
As the Mississippi Riverkings head into their twentieth season, plenty of new challenges await, not the least of which is a former captain that will now serve as head coach.
The RiverKings currently serve as the oldest continuously operating sports franchise in the Memphis metro area, and the 2011-2012 season marks the twentieth anniversary for a team that has twice hoisted the Ray Miron President’s Cup as Central Hockey League champions. Their run in the CHL also saw them make the playoffs on fourteen separate occasions including four conference finals appearances. However, they now find themselves in uncharted territory, as the upcoming campaign represents a move to the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Derek Landmesser had one of the most prolific playing careers in RiverKings history. He was a staple in the RiverKings lineup, having been with the team since it relocated to the Desoto Civic Center in 2000 where he has earned many accolades, such as being selected as the CHL’s most outstanding defensemen after the 2000-2001 season. He was also selected to the league’s all-postseason team three times and holds RiverKings records for season points by a defenseman, season plus-minus, career regular season games played, career assists, career penalty minutes, and career points by a defenseman. The Thunder Bay, Ontario native started his professional career in 1996 with his hometown team, the Thunder Cats, who played in the Colonial Hockey League and moved to the United Hockey League. In addition to his time with the RiverKings, Landmesser’s career has consisted of stops in Manitoba (IHL), Rockford (UHL), Muskegon (UHL), along with three games in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies. His leadership has always been counted on, but now that role will grow dramatically as he becomes the thirteenth coach for RiverKings’ franchise.
We caught up with the team’s new head man about his transition from player to coach, what to expect from the SPHL versus the CHL, his role in the community and more.
MemphiSport: What are your expectations for the team this year?
Derek Landmesser: Obviously to be successful. When I played the game, the ultimate goal was to win a championship, and I think as a coach, your goal has to be to win a championship. If it’s anything else, I think it’s a disappointment and a bit of a failure. So we’re going into this trying to win a championship.
MemphiSport: Do you think that’s a realistic goal?
Derek Landmesser: Without a doubt. We are a new team in the league, but I’m giving the team the best of my abilities, and I definitely think it can be done.
MemphiSport: Speaking of the new league, for those who aren’t aware, the RiverKings are now a member of the Southern Professional Hockey League. Can you talk a little about the differences between the Central Hockey League and the SPHL and what we can expect?
Derek Landmesser: The main thing you are going to see is a lot younger players. Players in this league are typically a lot younger. Kids in the league are using it as a stepping stone to make it to the next level. You have guys in the CHL who have made a career in the Central Hockey League, whereas here guys are trying to make that jump to the next level. You’re going to see a lot of guys that are juniors or just out of college trying to move up.
MemphiSport: I’m sure you look forward to working with the young players you just mentioned. Do you think you would have made a different decision as far as taking the job had the move to the new league not taken place?
Derek Landmesser: I don’t think so. I’m very happy with the decision that my family and I made. To still be part of this organization, we’re extremely excited, and we want nothing but success for this franchise.
MemphiSport: You played professional hockey for fourteen years, ten with the RiverKings. When you began your career, do you envision yourself as one day becoming a coach?
Derek Landmesser: You know, if you would have asked me fourteen years ago if I would have played for fourteen years, the answer probably would have been no. I’ve been extremely fortunate to play as long as I have, and to continue to be involved with hockey is something I love. It’s what I’ve done for so long, and I truly enjoy it, love it. I’m really excited to have this opportunity.
MemphiSport: Do you think it’s going to be difficult for you to not be out on the ice?
Derek Landmesser: I think for any former player, sure, that’s going to be something that’s going to be in the back of your head. But I realize now that I’m going to be behind the bench, and I’m extremely excited about that: guiding the whole team. As a player, you solely concentrate on your job out there, whereas a coach you have to worry about everyone’s job. I look forward to the challenge, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
MemphiSport: Being a younger coach, not far separated from your career, do you see yourself being fairly hands on?
Derek Landmesser: Oh, I’ll definitely be hands on. From my experience as a player and working with coaches over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to win a couple of championships, and I see what’s worked on those teams. I’ll be out there sharing all the knowledge I’ve gained over the years with the players.
MemphiSport: You’re a former defensemen, but you also scored a lot of goals. So do you see yourself being a defensive-minded coach?
Derek Landmesser: I think you always have to have a defensive mindset because defensive teams are successful in the long run. But having said that, I also want to be an offensive team, a team that can run and gun with anyone and be entertaining. I think any coach will tell you they want to be defensive minded, but it’s not going to be our goal. Our goal is going to be to go up there and score goals and to make the game exciting.
MemphiSport: Making the game exciting is definitely important, and let’s face it, you’re in Mississippi coaching hockey. Do you think in this kind of market that your duties as a coach also involve promoting the team?
Derek Landmesser: Without a doubt. I think you have to get out in the community and get involved as much as you can. And ultimately for minor league sports, I think it’s all about entertainment. We want people to be able to come to the rink and say, ‘You know what? We got our money’s worth; it was entertaining and a great family atmosphere.’
MemphiSport: Speaking of community involvement, you’ve been part of a local organization that works with young people for a while now. Tell us a bit about that if you would.
Derek Landmesser: I’ve been involved with the Junior Street Kings roller hockey program for the past five or six years, and it’s been a lot of fun working with young kids in the area, introducing them to the game of hockey. It’s really cool. We have a really nice outdoor facility down in Hernando. It’s great to get out there to teach the kids and work with them.
So the RiverKings head into their twentieth season facing a bevy of new obstacles. Only time will tell, but it definitely seems as though the rookie coach is well aware of what challenges await him and is ready to take them on.
Photo by Chase Gustafson, Game photo courtesy of Mississippi RiverKings