Grant Arnold faced a crossroads not often encountered by many 26-year-olds.
He could keep playing hockey and build on a strong rookie season with the Quad-City Mallards or he could retire and begin a new chapter of his life.
Arnold spent much of the offseason debating before finally deciding to end his playing career and join the staff of the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers as an assistant coach under Pat Mikesch in August.
"It was hard, it was hard to walk away from the game, especially being a 25-, 26-year-old with some pretty good success in the league and having a decently bright future and playing in the league for a long time," Arnold said. "I was ready to make an impact on kids’ lives and players’ lives and help them get to the next level and develop as human beings."
Arnold made his presence felt in just one season with the Mallards. He scored nine goals and added 16 assists in 64 games and quickly earned the respect of the locker room and coaching staff, earning the role of assistant captain by the second half of the season.
"He provided leadership, and he's a leader by example with a never-quit mentality," Mallards head coach Phil Axtell said. "He was a warrior. He did whatever it took to be successful. I wish I could have a team full of those."
That warrior mentality was how Arnold played while in juniors with the Gamblers, helping win two Clark Cups. It was how he played in four years at the University of Denver, the first player to serve as captain in back-to-back seasons in 62 years. It was how he played with the Mallards, racking up 78 penalty minutes.
But that playing style also took a toll. Last year Arnold played through a torn shoulder and whiplash. He's had separate shoulder and hip injuries as well as hand injuries from fights.
"Just the way I played, with being really physical and being a hard player to play against, is what I always prided myself on," he said. "It takes a toll on your body so I was really beat up towards the end."
It was a factor in his retirement, but not the biggest reason.
"I think this is the path I can be the best in the world and the best person I can be is making a hockey coach, and I wanted to make that step," he said. "I didn’t want to miss out on getting into coaching early. I think I can be really good at this coaching gig, and I wanted to get as much experience as I could as early as I could, just start my path."
Arnold is settling into his new role. He's in charge of the Gamblers' penalty kill as well as working the players through skill drills. He's also starting to take part in recruiting and scouting. The Gamblers are currently sitting in third place in the Eastern Conference with 18 points.
"It’s been awesome, and I have so much passion for this organization and this logo that it’s been extremely special," Arnold said. "Being that teacher and role model and communicator with the kids has been everything I wished it would be. It’s something I’m really passionate about, communicating with them on a daily basis and helping them."
Arnold hasn't decided where he wants to eventually end up in coaching. He'd like to return to the University of Denver at some point and his hometown of Centennial, Colorado. He'd also welcome getting an opportunity in the professional ranks but right now enjoys coaching in the junior ranks.
Though he's where he wants to be now, it's still tough for Arnold to no longer be playing the game he loves.
"I miss the hell out of it. I definitely don’t have any regrets on getting out of the game, but I do miss it very much," he said. "You just miss the relationships with your teammates, going to war and battling with them all the time, the ups and downs in a season, and that’s just something I’m going through and a process that’s going to take time."
Arnold's absence is certainly being felt by the Mallards, who are currently in sixth place in the Central Division heading into tonight's game against the Indy Fuel.
"We miss him," Axtell said. "I would always miss a player like him. It's tough not having him, but I think we've got a good group of guys. But I'm happy for him. The way he treated the game, the game is treating him back."
Komm returns to Mallards: Goaltender Branden Komm has returned to the Quad-City Mallards after being released from a professional tryout agreement Thursday by the AHL’s Iowa Wild.
Komm, who signed a PTO with Iowa on Tuesday, did not see any game action for the Wild. Komm has started one game for the Mallards since joining the team in a Nov. 7 trade with the Idaho Steelheads, stopping 26 shots in a 2-0 loss to the Kansas City Mavericks.