It happened 20 years ago Thursday, but for some reason it seems more distant than that.
It’s probably because things have changed so much. The maniacal passion the Quad-Cities community once had for minor league hockey dwindled a long time ago.
But on April 20, 1997, when the Quad-City Mallards played Game 6 of their Colonial Hockey League semifinal series against the Thunder Bay Thunder Cats, a record crowd of 9,579 turned out at what was then known as The Mark of the Quad-Cities. The Mallards fell behind 4-1 but, spurred on by that wild-eyed crowd, they rallied to claim a 7-4 victory and advance to the league finals.
The Mallards, then in only their second year of existence, had drawn good crowds all season but that was a watershed moment.
Less than two weeks later, they broke the attendance record when 9,701 fans turned out for Game 5 of the finals series against the Flint Generals.
They went on to average 8,646 paying customers per game the following season and when they clinched their second straight Colonial Cup against that same Flint team, a total of 10,145 people crammed into the arena with another 1,500 paying to watch it on big screens in an adjoining conference room.
The Mallards may not have many more than 1,500 inside the arena for their first ECHL home playoff game against the Fort Wayne Komets on Wednesday night.
They finished 15th in the 27-team league in attendance this season with an average of 3,928 fans per game, down slightly from a year ago but not too far off the league average of 4,252.
For nearly every game this season, part of the upper deck of the iWireless Center has been cordoned off with curtains, reducing the seating capacity to 5,100.
It’s not that the team is horrible (although it has dug an 0-2 hole in this playoff series) and there’s nothing wrong with the way it is being marketed. The current owners seem to know what they’re doing.
But those giddy days of the late 1990s aren’t ever coming back. It was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle, perfect storm sort of scenarios concocted from ingredients that can’t be replicated.
One part of the equation was the novelty of having minor league hockey here. Most people in the Quad-Cities hadn’t seen a hockey game before 1995.
When we suddenly got a franchise in the old CHL, many people bought a ticket just to see what this was about.
It probably helped that most local fans didn’t know a hockey puck from Wolfgang Puck because the level of play in that league was far below what we now see in the ECHL. There weren’t legitimate NHL prospects in the old CHL, which later became the United Hockey League, and at times the games took on almost a pro wrestling feel. There were lots of fights.
Mallards defenseman Kerry Toporowski recorded 413 penalty minutes in the 2000-01 season. The ECHL leader this season had 274.
Familiarity was part of the early Mallards phenomenon, too. Because the players had no chance of ever sniffing the NHL, many of them spent six or seven years here and were very accessible. That added to the appeal.
There also was a familiarity with the opponents. There were only nine teams in the CHL when the Mallards debuted in 1995 so they were playing the same clubs over and over. The fans didn’t just come out to cheer Glenn Stewart and Hugo Proulx but also to boo the Muskegon Fury and to vilify a Flint team they derisively called the Genitals. People such as Flint coach Robbie Nichols and Muskegon star Robin Bouchard also had a WWE type knack for inciting opposing crowds.
The biggest ingredient in the box office success of those teams, however, was that they won almost every night. The Mallards set a record by becoming the first pro hockey franchise at any level to win 50 or more games six years in a row. They won championships in 1997, 1998 and 2001.
All of it blended together to make going to Mallards games the thing to do. The crowds were huge, the games entertaining, the atmosphere unbelievably energetic. It was the hottest ticket in town.
It never will be like that again.
The only part of the equation that the current team has any chance of replicating is the team success. The Mallards aren’t doing a bad job there although they’re certainly not winning at the level that they did from 1996-2002. They were 40-28-2-2 this season.
It’s tougher, too, because there is more parity in the ECHL than in the old CHL or UHL. The winningest team in the league this season, the Toledo Walleye, won 51 games.
But it apparently is still possible to draw good crowds for minor league hockey. Toledo and Fort Wayne both averaged more than 7,000 fans per game.
We’re never going to see crowds of 9,000 on a regular basis any more, but if the Mallards can win a few more games and maybe win a championship one of these years, maybe they can at least remove those curtains from the upper deck.