Members of the Quad-City Mallards have spent the first third of the Central Hockey League season enjoying their league-best home record, working feverishly on improving the league's worst power play and building on the league's third-best winning percentage.
But in the midst of all that, the team has not forgotten to make time to have an impact on the community that its players call home for seven months.
"I want the people in the Quad-Cities area to know that we are a part of the community," coach Terry Ruskowski said. "If they need something, we’re going to be there for them, and if we can help them out, we’ll help them out."
That's why, in the midst of their busy schedules, the players have made a point to get involved. Most notable was the team's decision two weeks ago to take part in the Salvation Army's bell-ringing campaign the day before its road trip against the league-leading Rapid City Rush.
"It was a cold day, but it was good to get out and support the cause," forward Mike Hellyer said. "There were a lot of people supporting us when we walked in the store and we appreciated it. It was nice for us to spend our day out in the community."
Hellyer is one of six Mallards who was with the team last year in a season filled with questions about the organization's security. The continued community support given to the team during that stretch made a lasting impact on the Manitoba native.
"I know the community has been very supportive of the team in the tough times, the last three or four years, they weren’t sure if they were going to have a team or not, but they stuck with it," Hellyer said. "To be a returning guy, any chance we have to give back to the community, in any way, it’s just a positive for the organization and it’s just kind of kudos to the community. They stuck with us we want to stick with them."
The need for community involvement stems from Ruskowski, whose desire to give back goes back to his childhood.
"When I was a kid, I could remember looking up to guys that I admired, good hockey players, and I emulated what they did, on the ice, and off the ice, how they handled themselves," Ruskowski said. "I think we want to portray that we are good people, good athletes, and we want to show that we can be role models."
The team also goes out to local schools once a month to read to kids and talk to them about the benefits of an education.
"It’s good to have someone else besides your teacher to tell you to stay in school, and school’s important, it’s not just athletics, athletics, athletics," said captain Darren McMillan, who has a son of his own in second grade. "When a pro athlete comes in, no matter who it is, if it’s someone the kids look up to, maybe they listen a little more and we can help them out with the decisions they have to make."
"It’s nice to give back, especially to the schools," rookie Tyler Yaworski added. "The kids get these big smiles on their faces, and it’s pretty rewarding for us to get out there and spread some knowledge about getting your homework done and stuff like that."
Ruskowski would like to do even more to give back, especially at this time of year. But scheduling conflicts — the Mallards played four games in five nights in three different cities heading into the holiday break and leave for Brampton, Ont. early on Thursday — have prevented the team from doing so.
"I wish that we’d had a better schedule around Christmas time," Ruskowski said. "If we were home, I’d like the guys to go to a hospital and give out toys to the young kids who are going to be in the hospital for Christmas. I did that every year (while coaching) in Laredo. Unfortunately the last two years, the schedule hasn’t given us the opportunity to do that."
So over the rest of the season, don't be surprised to see a Mallard at a school, a hockey practice, or somewhere else in area, doing the little things to make sure they are a part of the community, and more than just a faceless hockey player.
"We’re here for a while. It’s kind of our home away from home," Yaworski said. "So it’s nice for people to be able to put a name to the face."