Tristan King is an eight-year veteran of the ECHL. He won a Kelly Cup championship with the Allen Americans in 2016.
So it's not surprising that when the Quad-City Mallards needed somebody to step up in the absence of leading goal-scorer Sam Warning, King rose to the occasion.
Since Warning signed a professional tryout agreement with the AHL's San Jose Barracuda, King has scored eight goals and added two assists and the Mallards are 7-3-0.
"I think it’s always tough to lose guys like that; Warns is a good player and that happens every year," King said. "Sometimes, if you lose a leading scorer, it makes each and every guy feel they need to work that much harder to make up for the slack, or sometimes it just ends up working out better for lines. Warns is obviously a big part that is missing, and we have guys picking up the slack."
King, 27, has had to battle through a lot this year, but now he's at his best when the team needs him the most, trying to push the Mallards out of their deepest depths and maybe, just maybe, battle for a playoff spot as they play three road games against the Indy Fuel this weekend, starting tonight.
"I think now, some may say it’s too little, too late, but there’s always a chance, and that’s the way we’re playing right now," he said. "This could be my last season, this could be a lot of guy’s last seasons, and we’re playing that way. We’re never going to play another season of hockey in our lives, and I think that’s showing on the ice."
The Minneapolis native thought he was going to be playing this year with the Orlando Solar Bears, with whom he signed with in August in order to be closer to his wife Brooke's family. He was in Florida, with his in-laws on the gulf coast town of Crystal River, when Hurricane Irma hit.
On Sept. 21, he was traded to the Mallards after the Solar Bears exceeded the ECHL veteran limit. It was all pretty overwhelming.
"I’d been through that hurricane, and it felt like it took so much just to sign with Orlando over the summer," King said. "I know it’s a business, but to get a call like that randomly that they traded me, I was pretty frustrated."
King contemplated retiring, but after talking it over with his family, decided to report to the Quad-Cities, but not until after helping Florida recover after Irma. He arrived three days into the Mallards' training camp.
"I didn’t want to just quit and say I’m not going to report and wait for a trade," King said. "I just want to play hockey. It doesn’t matter where it is, I just want to enjoy my last year and have as much fun as I possibly can and go out the right way."
King had a nice debut, scoring a goal in the opener and adding an assist the next night. Through the first 11 games he had two goals and six assists. The Mallards were 6-6-0 and in third place in the division. Then things started to go south. King had just three points in his next eight games, then missed six games with an injury.
When he came back, the Mallards had lost eight straight games, a skid that would reach 13 and knock the Mallards down to the bottom of the league standings. The team was in disarray, firing team president Bob McNamara and director of hockey operations Jon Piche.
It wasn't a good environment.
"I think we had those moments where we were worrying about other stuff not related to hockey or what we thought was related to hockey, and we weren’t really focusing on what the issue would have been at the time on the ice," King said. "We were just trying to point fingers, and that’s not the way a team should be. If somebody makes a mistake, everybody picks them up. You don’t point your finger at them."
The Mallards snapped their streak with a win over the Indy Fuel just before the all-star break. But not much later, King's grandmother-in-law passed away. He missed six more games to be with Brooke and her family during that time.
The Mallards were 2-3-1 in his absence but when King returned, he came back a noticeably different player with a different perspective on the game.
"It was almost one of those moments where, playoffs, whether we make it or not, whether we win every game the rest of the year, whatever happens, this could be my last year playing, but that was her last breath she ever took," he said. "Am I really living up to my potential? Am I really doing everything I can to help the team?"
Since then, King is leaving it all out there for the Mallards, doing anything and everything to help the team win.
Last week, he was battling the stomach flu, something that has hit the Mallards hard over the last few weeks. He scored two goals against Kalamazoo Friday, then pushed hard to go with the team to Fort Wayne the next night.
Head coach Phil Axtell turned him down, not because of his play but simply because he didn't want to risk any more players getting sick on a cramped bus.
So King missed the game in Fort Wayne but then scored a goal the next day in a home win over Toledo. He now has 11 goals and 14 assists in 37 games.
"He's found another gear, and it's perfect timing because we needed somebody to do that," Axtell said. "He's showing that he's been there and been through it. There's highs and lows of every season for every team, and he's pushing through."
King talks like this might be it for him, but isn't quite ready to say this is his last season. He's planning to become a firefighter after his hockey career is finished, but he knows the love of the game will make it hard to finally walk away.
If this is the last year for King, he'll close the book on a career that has included more than 100 goals and that championship run two years ago. Even if this season doesn't end in playoffs, King is proud of the fight the Mallards are now showing.
"I can hang my hat on this season and even if we don’t make playoffs, I can say we ended the right way," he said. "We weren’t a team that started hot and blew it and ended up hating each other. We are a team that started off really rocky, all pulled together, and if we keep going the way we have been and the way I know we will, that’s something special you can say you’ve been a part of."