An Odyssey To Motown

Derek Lalonde’s Journey To Head Coach Of The Detroit Red Wings Has Come Via A Long And Winding Path

The Beatles sang a famous song about a long and winding road. Derek Lalonde, the head coach of the Detroit Red Wings, has traveled it.

Lalonde grew up in a tiny place in upstate New York called Brasher Falls. In fact, with a population of 769, it’s not even a town or a village. It’s officially classified as a hamlet. How far north is it? Well, it’s a half-hour drive to the Canadian border and a 353-mile drive away from New York City.

A goaltender in high school, Lalonde left Brasher Falls and played Division III college hockey at Cortland State with the idea of becoming a gym teacher. However, hockey had taken a hold of the young man, and the odyssey began. Western Massachusetts, a few stops back to New York, Michigan, Denver, Green Bay, Toledo, Des Moines and then the big stage in Tampa. Finally, in 2022, Motown, where the kid from Brasher Falls was given the reigns of one of the most storied NHL franchises and charged with leading the Winged Wheels back to prominence.

All told, Lalonde, who is beginning his second season as head coach of the Red Wings, made three stops in Division III hockey, two in Division I, one in junior hockey, and two in the minor leagues. Then there was a four-year stint as a Tampa assistant coach before reaching the Mt. Everest of hockey coaching. If you got in a car in Brasher Falls and took a road trip to all of Lalonde’s stops along the way, you’d be at the wheel for 7,023 miles.

“There’s a value in experiencing all those levels because you have to wear so many hats,” Lalonde said. “I have run every system, power play, penalty kill.”

It wasn’t just on-ice matters he had to concern himself with. In college and at lower-level leagues, many coaches often must sharpen skates and repair equipment.

“I never had a goal of getting to the NHL,” Lalonde admitted. “I had a goal of getting to the next level, but I was happy where I was at the time. And that made me successful wherever I was, and the phone just kept ringing.”

You have to give back to the community to develop a brand and a fan base. I like doing these things. Whenever they ask, I say yes.”  

–Derek Lalonde

Wherever he’s gone, one thing has always stayed the same—Lalonde’s nickname. Over one hundred years ago, the Montreal Canadiens were captained by a prolific scorer by the name of Edward “Newsy” Lalonde. He won a Stanley Cup in 1916 and is enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

“Everybody calls me Newsy,” the modern-day Lalonde, who has no relation to Edward Lalonde, laughed. “Some people in the NHL don’t know who Derek is.”

As a guy who’s pulled himself up the ranks, he’s learned the importance of keeping in touch with the grassroots and giving back to the game. That mindset was on display this summer when Lalonde dropped in to offer encouragement and pointers at Street Hockey in the D, a series of free clinics organized by the Red Wings designed to give Detroit kids a chance to get into hockey. More than 300 kids participated at eight different locations throughout Detroit.  

“It was just very rewarding working with the kids. A lot of smiles, a lot of enthusiasm,” Lalonde said. “You have to give back to the community to develop a brand and a fan base. I like doing these things. Whenever they ask, I say yes.”

Lalonde grew up in a modest home in Brasher Falls with an older sister, Jazan. His father, Jack, worked at a local electric power facility while his mother, Donna, ran a hair salon out of their home. While it’s a small town, Brasher Falls has a rink, Tri-Town Arena, and there the young Derek began playing hockey. When a coach needed a kid to play goalie, he raised his hand and found he liked the intensity of stealing a game and keeping his team close. Undersized at five feet and nine inches, Lalonde developed an acrobatic style that worked. In 1990, he led St. Lawrence Central High School to the state final four, a performance that led to an offer from Cortland State. Lalonde graduated with a degree in physical education and then moved to North Adams State—now called the Massachusetts College for Liberal Arts. While working towards a masters in athletic administration, he served as an unpaid assistant hockey coach. 

It was there that Lalonde fell in love with the process of building and shaping a team. Over the next 12 years, he served as an assistant coach at Lebanon Valley College, Hamilton College, Ferris State, and the University of Denver. He got his first head coaching job with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL, and led them to the league title in his first season. Next came two years with the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL, and two more with the Iowa Wild in the AHL.

The Red wings’ third annual street hockey in the D summer series helped provide more than 300 metro Detroit youth ages 6-14 an opportunity to learn more about hockey and fundamental life skills.

“That’s when I started thinking, ‘Hey, maybe I do have a shot at the NHL,” Lalonde recalled.

In the summer of 2018, Lalonde picked up the phone and on the other end was Jon Cooper, who had built a powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning team and was in the market for a new assistant. Before long, the NHL had a second Newsy Lalonde in its ranks.

Nearly two years later, Lalonde looked up at the scoreboard in the final minutes of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final before the Lightning clinched the Stanley Cup as a video showed clips of some all-time greats raising the Cup—Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux.

“Wow,” Lalonde recalled thinking. “The Division-III goalie from Brasher Falls is going have his name on the Cup.”

The COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from bringing the Cup to Brasher Falls, but after Tampa won its second consecutive Stanley Cup, he put it on display in his parents’ front yard and his mom, sister and friends all got to drink from it.

Tampa made it to the Stanley Cup Final a third time in a row in 2022. A day after the Lightning lost in six games, Lalonde got a text from Yzerman, Detroit’s general manager, and Derek “Newsy” Lalonde was named head coach of the Red Wings days later.

The Wings were legitimate playoff contenders last season until they ran out of gas down the stretch. Lalonde is expecting further improvement this year.

“Coaching is about relationships with your players, your staff, and building a culture,” Lalonde said. “You have to create a process that enables you to win. I learned that in all the levels I’ve been at. That’s what got me to Detroit.”

And this year? 

“I’m excited,” he concluded.

So is everyone back in Brasher Falls, all 769 of them.

Issue: 
2023-10

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