It felt more like a pep rally than a wake.
There were no visible tears, very little angst, not much anger.
Maybe people are in denial. Or maybe they’ve just heard the hopeful rumors.
In any case, what could be — possibly, maybe, perhaps — the last professional hockey game ever played in the Quad-Cities had a distinctly upbeat atmosphere on Saturday night.
After drawing an energetic crowd of 5,402 on Friday night, the Mallards attracted an even larger throng on Saturday for the final game of this — and possibly any — regular season.
The current owners of the Mallards recently announced they are folding up the franchise, again leaving the area in hockey limbo. There are rumors that multiple groups are interested in bringing a team here, almost certainly in a different league. But there are no guarantees at this point.
Many people admitted they came out Saturday simply because they knew this could be it.
“I didn’t even realize until yesterday that tonight was the last game,’’ said Ken Jacoby, who served as the Mallards’ play-by-play man from 2001-04, but seldom goes to games any more. “When I heard that, I just had to be here.’’
There also were regulars like Larry Anderson of Moline. He comes to every game wearing a homemade hat fashioned out of a duck decoy, sits in the horse-shoe end of the arena, blows a red vuvuzela and cheers on his team. He’s been doing it since the Mallards debuted in 1995.
“If we could get these people here every night, we wouldn’t be in this position,’’ Anderson said, glancing around at a crowd that was more than double the team’s season average. “I bet if you went around and asked people why they’re here, they’d say it’s because it’s the last game. I’d ask them where they’ve been all season.’’
Anderson is among the most devout of the diehards. He remembers traveling to road games in the early days when the Mallards were part of the Colonial Hockey League. He sat in the stands one night at Flint, Michigan, and continuously pummeled a Flint Generals doll so vigorously that he almost got kicked out of the arena.
“That’s all right,’’ he said. “I just went out and tied it to the bumper of the car and dragged it all the way home.’’
Not everyone on hand Saturday night was that hardcore.
There were a lot of people like Brian Heuertz of Davenport, who doesn’t have season tickets but brings his family to a few games every season.
“I think people will really miss this if it goes away,’’ Heuertz said.
But it sounds as though it may not be going away.
Almost everyone seemed to have heard whispers that prospective owners are checking out the Quad-Cities as a possible site for a team in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
“Whoever does it is going to have to have deep pockets,’’ Anderson said, “because it’s going to take some time to bring it back.’’
The SPHL is a lower caliber of hockey than the ECHL. Others mentioned the United States Hockey League, a Tier 1 junior league, as a possibility.
“I wouldn’t care if they went out and pulled a bunch of kids out of the rec league and put them on the ice,’’ Anderson said. “At least it would still be hockey.’’
He added he wouldn’t mind seeing a USHL team.
“That would be great with me,’’ he said. “We’d be looking at players who eventually are going to end up in the NHL.’’
There is a certain segment of the local hockey-loving population that actually would prefer a junior team.
Peter Gluck of Bettendorf loves hockey but was not among those in attendance Saturday because he’s become disenchanted with what he’s seen at the Taxslayer Center in recent years. He prefers juniors and goes to Dubuque a few times a season to get his hockey fix by watching the USHL team there.
“I really believe that’s what we need here and what will sell tickets,’’ he said.
In the meantime, Taxslayer Center executive director Scott Mullen has initiated a campaign to have local fans submit a fully refundable $25 deposit to ensure season tickets for any future team, regardless of what league it might be in. He is hoping a substantial show of support will sway potential owners.
“I’m not going to put a deposit down until I know what quality of hockey is coming here,’’ Gluck said.
But you can bet a fair share of the folks who filled the place Saturday will plop down $25.
When the final game was over and one of the worst teams in the ECHL had rewarded their support with a 4-3 victory, the fans cheered wildly and held up signs saying things like “We’re not just Mallards fans, we’re family.’’
Mullen and several former Mallards heroes addressed the crowd afterward, adding to the pep rally feel.
“We’re going to work as hard as we can to keep hockey here,’’ Mullen said. “I guarantee if it doesn’t happen this year, we will have hockey here in the future.’’