Few opponents look forward to playing at Fort Worth's NYTEX Sports Centre.|
The smallest arena in the CHL at 2,400 seats also offers the biggest home-ice advantage in the Double-A circuit, with a smaller-than-normal rink leading to a 134-42-19 mark in the Brahmas' six seasons.
However, count Mike Hellyer in the minority. The Quad City Mallards rookie is looking forward to the CHL playoffs starting Thursday in that old Texas outpost.
"The last time we were there, I had some of the old fans offering handshakes and cheering when my name was called,'' said Hellyer, who played for Fort Worth in the playoffs last season."But I expect just the opposite this time because they are so loyal. The boo-birds will come out and some words I can't use in the newspaper will be directed my way. But I understand. Now we're competitors.''
The CHL Rookie of the Year also claims several friends in the other locker room, too, including Calin Wild, the captain of Hellyer's college team for two seasons.
"It's like fighting with your brother,'' Hellyer said. "We really like to go at each other. We text and talk all of the time. The latest, of course, was, `I'm coming for you!' So I know there's going to be a lot of chirping on the ice.
"Cal and some of those other guys were friends before this, and they'll be friends again after this, but the friendships go on the backburner for the next two weeks until we can shake hands and congratulate someone.''
Indeed, Hellyer bears no malice toward his first pro team.
"It was a phenomenal experience,'' said Hellyer, who joined the Texas team after finishing the college season, playing the final three regular season games to become playoff eligible.
"It's not the easiest thing to join a team that late. But it helped that I knew Cal already, and they had a really good group of guys that opened the door to their room and let me in.''
Yet, despite those warm feelings, Hellyer decided against returning to Fort Worth after scoring three goals and six points in 12 playoff games last spring.
Instead, the 26-year-old Canadian signed last July with former Mallards coach David Bell.
"I remember our conversations,'' Hellyer said. "He was an offensive-minded coach, and of course we all saw what a small, speedy guy like Brandon Marino did here last year (in winning the CHL's MVP honor).
"No offense to Fort Worth, or Coach (Dan) Wildfong, but I thought this would be a better fit for me. Being a small forward myself, who wouldn't want more chances to use your speed and score? Who wouldn't want to play for a run-and-gun coach?''
A month later, though, Bell resigned after the Mallards' former owners missed another deadline to pay the salary long-owed to him.
"It was crazy,'' Hellyer admitted. "My mind was going a million miles a minute. The worry was, were they going to have a team? Was I going to regret this? We had our struggles before the season, too, but the hockey gods were smiling on me, and everything's worked out even better than I could have imagined.''
Hellyer said the key was getting Terry Ruskowski, a title-winning veteran coach, to replace Bell and shepherd the Flock through an early season that included the CHL and Moline's i wireless Center taking over the team following a failed ownership transfer.
"He encourages us to be creative out there,'' said Hellyer, who has rewarded Ruskowski with 23 goals and a CHL rookie-leading 61 points."He tells us all of the time that he doesn't want robots. He wants us to make plays, and that's why we're flourishing offensively now, because he's so supportive of us taking chances.''
Hellyer also is glad he took a chance on the Mallards.
"There's no hard feelings on grudges,'' Hellyer said. "The last time they played here, I talked in the hallway (with Wildfong). He knows it was nothing personal and I had a good time there. He knows I wish him and the team well except for when they play us.''
Flock's first round
Thursday: QC at Fort Worth, 7 p.m.
Saturday: QC at Fort Worth, 7:30 p.m.
Apr. 3: Fort Worth at QC, 7:05 p.m.
Apr. 5: Fort Worth at QC, 7:05 p.m.
*Apr. 6: Fort Worth at QC, 7:05 p.m.
*Apr. 9: QC at Fort Worth, 7 p.m.
*Apr. 10: QC at Fort Worth, 7 p.m.
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