Originally Posted Online: March 24, 2013, 10:18 pm
Last Updated: March 24, 2013, 11:49 pm

A wild and fun ride for Mallards

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By Marc Nesseler, nesseler@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
The Quad City Mallards' Jason Dixon reaches for the puck as the Bloomington Blaze's Steve Makway prepares to slam him into the boards at the i wireless Center in Moline on Sunday, March 24, 2013.

Once upon a time, there was a Quad-Cities professional hockey team. Well, there sort of was a team.

It was nearly five months ago to the day. The Quad City Mallards, without team ownership, didn't have a training camp and their season opener was postponed as a result. The only thing certain was the team's uncertainty.

That was when the league and the i wireless Center stepped in and took over the team, keeping it afloat. Still, what could expectations be when all of the other nine teams in the CHL had been practicing for weeks with set rosters?

"To tell you the truth, what I was thinking back then was having just enough players to get a team," said Terry Ruskowski, the Mallards' coach and general manager. "I was calling anyone who could drive down to make the team."

Through the first three months of the season, the team struggled to win back-to-back games. It wallowed at the bottom of the standings.

And yet, as the regular season closed on Sunday with a 2-1 win over Bloomington, something that at one point seemed unthinkable became a pinch-me realization. The win was the team's eighth straight at home to close out the season as the hottest team in the league with an 11-2-0 finishing kick.

What five months ago seemed like a season of endurance turned out to be what CHL commissioner Duane Lewis called "the poster child for what you can do with a few adjustments." Not only are the Mallards in the playoffs, but they are a No. 6 seed among eight qualifiers, and might be the team no one wants to face.

If you're looking for a title for this once-upon-a-time storybook season, veteran Mallard defenseman Darren McMillan might have one.

"It's been an unbelievable ride," he said

Hard to believe, indeed. The Mallards were 15-18-4 with nine weeks left in this season.

"We knew it was going to be work," said McMillan. "And we knew it was going to be a long season. Everyone just bought in."

They bought in to the system of Ruskowski.

"It was a learning process for them," the coach said. "It's knowing the system and playing the system. When we didn't play the system, we didn't play good hockey. They bought into what we wanted to sell."

Since Jan. 19, the Mallards are an amazing 19-8-2.

Five months ago, though, it took the league and the Moline arena buying into the thought that hockey in the Quad-Cities couldn't die.

"The league is satisfied and hopes that this is a model for other franchises," said Lewis, in the Quad-Cities to watch the Mallards' regular-season finale. "We were not turning around a motor boat; we were turning around a cruise ship," speaking of the tremendous hockey success Q-C had enjoyed in the past.

"We knew Terry would be a great coach. We knew of his capabilities and the success he had in this league. It's unfortunate that we didn't have David Bell (the Mallards' coach in 2011-12 who was a victim of the Mallards' ownership situation) here; he had done well too. But, when the situation changed, we immediately thought of Terry. He was available and we knew what he could do.

"Too look at what Terry had to do, with no training camp, that's pretty impressive. No one could have dreamed a month ago that this team would be where it is.

It was in January that the league re-upped with the Mallards for 2013-14 and brought in team president Bob McNamara. Fittingly, that is when the turnaround in the standings began.

"It has been a mental progression for on-ice, with the coaching system being implemented, and also in the front office. Bob was a great hire.

"All of the pieces of the puzzle have helped the rewards of the second half of the season."

In fact, Lewis says there is no urgency to finding a new Mallards owner, thought at one time that was thought to be a must. "We have a lot of time time find the right ownership," the commissioner said between periods Sunday.

Now come playoffs that months ago seemed unimaginable.

Come next October, they'll be looking to add to an eight-game home winning streak on the heels of a full offseason of recruiting by Ruskowski, something he wasn't afforded prior to this success story.

An Unbelievable Ride.

If that storybook's written, Darren McMillan, you can take credit for the appropriate title.


Sports editor Marc Nesseler can be reached at nesseler@qconline.com