The bond between four members of the Quad-City Mallards was forged seven years ago and about 90 miles away.
It was in The Stable in Cedar Rapids where Sam Warning, Justin Kovacs, Greg Amlong and Ryan McGrath all started playing together in juniors as members of the USHL's Cedar Rapids RoughRiders.
Now, they're reunited as members of the Mallards.
"It’s pretty crazy that all these Riders are coming to rejoin, it’s pretty cool," Kovacs said. "I haven’t seen Greg or Ryan in a long time and it’s pretty awesome to be back on the ice with them."
Under head coach Mark Carlson, the RoughRiders have won the Clark Cup once and the Anderson Cup as the regular season champion three times. He has also been named the USHL coach of the year three times and has more than 500 career wins.
The Mallards roster has seen a distinct Cedar Rapids influence in the last few seasons, and with good reason. Head coach Phil Axtell played for Cedar Rapids for two seasons and knows the influence Carlson has on the players he guides.
"He develops players and human beings. Not only does he pay attention to details and demands the bar to be raised on the ice but off the ice as well," Axtell said. "I know what he’s about, what he expects and what he teaches and how he develops players and young men, I know I’m going to get a good product both on the ice and off the ice."
The RoughRiders influence has had a major hand in the Mallards' success over the last few seasons. Two years ago Steve Michalek — while under contract with the Minnesota Wild — went 12-8-4 with a 2.42 goals against average before earning a midseason call-up to the Iowa Wild.
Warning is the longest-tenured Mallard, now entering his third season with the team and has posted 40 goals and 45 assists in his career. Kovacs joined the team last year and finished as the team leader with 40 assists and 60 points.
They're known commodities, but the two newcomers could become key pieces just like their teammates. Kovacs said he reached out to both in the offseason to Amlong and McGrath, with whom he and Warning went 42-12-6 in one season with the RoughRiders, in which they won the Anderson Cup. He's excited about what they could bring to the team.
"Greg’s a big, strong (defenseman). He’ll play solid (defense), he’ll block shots for you, so he does everything right back there," Kovacs said. "He’s got some offensive ability so we can use his skill as well, hopefully he scores some goals. It’s always nice when you get some production from your defensemen when your offense is struggling."
Last year Kovacs and Warning were joined by fellow RoughRider alum Michael Parks, and all three finished in the top four in points for the Mallards. Parks went overseas this offseason but McGrath could provide a solid replacement, as he finished with the same amount of points as Parks in their one year together in Cedar Rapids.
"He’s a small forward, tough, gritty," Kovacs said of McGrath. "We did pretty well (together), he’s super skilled, can put the puck in the net, make plays."
There are other connections besides the Cedar Rapids one. Amlong, Warning and McGrath grew up playing together in Missouri along with fellow Mallard forward Kyle Novak. Amlong was McGrath's best man in his wedding.
It's those relationships that could lead to some success for the new members of the Mallards.
"It makes it an easier transition, you’re more comfortable, you know guys, it makes it easier to play, to go out and do your job," Amlong said. "I think knowing the guys that have been here a little bit can help you out with the town and everything that goes along with it."
It's not automatic that being a RoughRider guarantees a spot on the roster. The Mallards released goaltender and Cedar Rapids alum Kent Patterson Monday, as well as defenseman Kevin Patterson, but Axtell does value Carlson's opinion on players he's looking to bring in.
"I’ve asked about every player I’ve brought in," Axtell said. "He gives the good and the bad and the honest truth. I definitely value his opinion."
And the close proximity of the two teams helps in other ways too. Looking for numbered jerseys for players to wear during their team scrimmages last week, Axtell drove halfway to Cedar Rapids to pick up some RoughRider practice jerseys.
"He’s got a thing, once a Rider, always a Rider and he takes that to heart," Axtell said. "He was one of the first phone calls I made when I found out I was taking over for (former head coach Terry Ruskwoski), within minutes. He’s been there, done it and does a great job. He’s a great mentor for me."
Now, Axtell just has to get Carlson to the Quad-Cities to see a Mallards game.
"It’s hard because they play a lot of weekend games and when they are home during the week, it’s a grind," Axtell said. "I hope so."