Nobody wanted to leave.
After the Quad-City Mallards beat the Cincinnati Cyclones 4-3 Saturday, their final game of the season, fans hung around the TaxSlayer Center, trying to soak up as much hockey as possible.
With the future of hockey in the Quad-Cities uncertain after the team announced it was ceasing operations after the season, the fans showed their support, and were rewarded with two thrilling wins in the last two nights of the year.
Following the game, TaxSlayer Center executive director Scott Mullen addressed the crowd of over 7,000, as did former Mallards Kerry Toporowski, Steve Gibson and Carl LeBlanc.
Though Mullen is working hard to keep hockey here for the 24th straight year, Saturday night was an emotional night as the future of hockey remains unclear.
The arena played a tribute video showcasing highlights of the last 23 years, set to The Beatles' "In My Life."
"It's one of those things that's tough to put into words," defenseman Jake Bolton said. "You have so many emotions, it's tough to be able to say what you're feeling. ... At one point I looked into the stands, and seeing people crying and happy and sad and all of the emotions, you knew how much it meant."
The Mallards laid everything out there to give the fans one last moment of euphoria.
Players played hurt, including Jamie Tardif and Kyle Follmer, who both suited up to give the Mallards 15 players for the game. They did it out of necessity as the Mallards lost Ryan McGrath to a knee injury suffered Friday, but they also wanted to go out on the ice as both announced their retirements after the game.
Tardif played for 12 seasons while Follmer played for four, parts of three with the Mallards.
"It was unreal. A little bittersweet but honestly really excited and looking forward to the next chapter in my life," Follmer said. "I don't know what's ahead of me, that's the exciting part ... but it's been one hell of a ride playing hockey. To finish it with a win, in front of a crowd like that, with all the support, it was awesome."
That love for the game was evident from the fans over this week. With Saturday’s crowd, more than 15,000 people came out for the last three home games.
“Once again, you guys proved that you’re the best," Toporowski said. "You came out this weekend when you were needed, and thank you. By far the best fans in minor league hockey.”
The Mallards controlled the first period, thanks to four Cincinnati penalties. Despite the lack of Cyclone discipline, the Mallards only scored once in the period when Willie Raskob buried a shot from the high slot past Joseph Raaymakers, making his first professional start after playing for the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League.
Cincinnati tied the game midway through the period. C.J. Motte made a diving stop on a 2-on-1 attempt, but the puck bounced right to Myles Powell, who had an easy look at an empty net for the first goal of his career.
Quentin Shore gave the Mallards the lead back, pouncing on a loose puck at the top of the right circle and beating Raaymakers with a wrist shot at 11:49.
But Cincinnati countered, grabbing goals from Brandon McNally at 13:34 and Dominic Zombo at 16:32 to take a 3-2 lead into the third period.
Stanislav Dzakhov tied the game less than a minute into the third period, burying his second goal in as many nights.
Dzakhov wasn’t done, tipping in a shot from Jake Bolton to give the Mallards a 4-3 lead at 6:02.
"It was a gutsy win," head coach Phil Axtell said. "We never quit."
The Cyclones made the Mallards work for the win, pulling Raaymakers with over 2:30 left. But a penalty evened the ice for the Mallards, and they held off the Cincinnati attack as the crowd grew louder and louder, until the final goal horn sounded.
"It was incredible, just to be on this roster and have a ceremony like that at the end, I came out for the third period and almost wasn't thinking about the game there for a bit because I looked up in the stands and saw the support that we had and how much these guys love hockey," Bolton said. "To be able to play in that game and get the win was amazing."