In his time as a sports reporter, Craig Cooper covered it all — NCAA basketball championships, college bowl games and even a Super Bowl.
His years with a minor league hockey team are as memorable as any of it.
As a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Cooper covered the Quad-City Mallards from their inception in 1995 until the 2002 season and wrote a book on the franchise, publishing "Quad-City Mallards: A Rare Breed of Duck" in 2002.
"Every night I looked forward to going," said Cooper, who now works as media coordinator for Genesis Health System. "This was as much fun as any of it. Every night something fun would happen."
The Quad-City Mallards are entering their last week in the ECHL after owner Jordan Melville announced last month the team would cease ECHL operations after its game Saturday against the Rapid City Rush.
Though TaxSlayer executive director Scott Mullen is working to find an owner to bring a team in for next season, it's possible the area could be without hockey for the first time since its debut Oct. 13, 1995.
At the time, Cooper had been covering the Quad-City Thunder, a basketball team playing in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association. After growing up in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and watching hockey with the Waterloo Black Hawks, when the sport came to the Quad-Cities, Cooper jumped at the chance to cover it.
"I thought it would catch on quickly and it did. The first season it was just going along and then the Friday night after Thanksgiving it went nuts, they sold out," Cooper said. "From then on, for four or five years, it was like the hottest thing around in sports. Every game was special."
The on-ice product made it easy for the wealth of fans to keep coming back. Over the next six seasons the Mallards won at least 50 games as well as three championships, averaging more than 7,800 fans per game. Cooper was there for all of it, including road trips, with Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Flint, Michigan, being two of his favorite stops.
"Every game was pretty exciting because people cared. They were passionate about it, so it was fun to be around it and fun to be around the players," Cooper said. "The players were special because they were so active in the community and they were really great with fans and very personable with fans and they went to a lot of events with fans. And it was new, it was like a new product to the people around here."
That connection has led to several players from those glory days laying down roots in the Quad-Cities. It's something that doesn't happen anymore, not when leagues like the ECHL are focused more on professional development than community connections, more on skill than brutality.
"It was a different era in hockey," Cooper said. "They fought a lot, there was a lot of fighting. It's a different game now than it was 20 years ago because everyone is much more aware of the danger of head injury."
After Cooper gave up covering the Mallards to become a business reporter and eventually moved on to Genesis, hockey in the Quad-Cities has had its ups and downs.
The Mallards became the AHL's Quad-City Flames from 2007-09, before returning as the Mallards in the fall of 2009. In that time the Mallards have played in three different leagues and have had five different owners.
Despite the troubles, the Mallards has had an impact on the community. They raised more than $800,000 over the years for Genesis Health Services Foundation and Cooper recognizes the void that would be left without a team.
However, he's confident there will be hockey in the future for the Quad-Cities, just like there has been for 23 years prior.
"They've been this far before, where they didn't have a team over the summer and it didn't look like they were going to have one and then someone came in," Cooper said. "I'm not convinced there won't be a team here, in fact I think there probably will be."