It was a decision that kept Quad-City Mallards owner Jordan Melville and team president Bob McNamara up well into the early morning.
The team was mired in a potentially season-destroying slide, having lost seven of eight games. Players were hurt and the team had seen its firm grasp on the playoffs dwindle to a fingerhold.
"It was a decision made over two nights," Melville said. "We were in Chicago and we were staying at the Drake Hotel. Both nights we were up until 5 in the morning, just talking about this team ... everything about it, and there was nothing we didn't discuss, nothing was the sacred cow."
After those nights in late January, the season-defining decision was made — relieve veteran head coach Terry Ruskowski of his duties and promote assistant Phil Axtell in his place. It was the biggest of gambles, firing one of the most experienced coaches in minor league hockey and promoting a rookie in his place.
"We had a chance to get someone in, not to say I'd lost confidence in Terry's ability to coach, but I'd lost it in the ability of the team to listen to him as a coach," Melville said. "It was the team that got him fired. But I did feel we had a good group of guys here, and we had time to get someone new in."
The payoff seems to have been worth the risk. The Mallards rallied from a three-goal third-period deficit to beat the Missouri Mavericks in Axtell's debut, the same day Ruskowski had been let go.
The team put together an eight-game winning streak, its longest since 2004. The Mallards enter their first-round playoff matchup with the Fort Wayne Komets with a 40-28-4 record, their best since 2006.
Under Axtell, the Mallards are 21-12-2, a .629 winning percentage. In four-plus seasons under Ruskowski the Mallards were 160-122-31, a .561 winning percentage.
"You see what Phil’s done since he came in here, he’s changed the culture and everyone is all in and wants to win. … I think it’s more Phil establishing something," defenseman Andrew Panzarella said. "Phil came in and he made some moves and the way he handles himself at the rink. I think everyone really wants to play hard for him and do the right things. It’s been great having him, and you can see the results."
Axtell said when he was promoted he wasn't going to change much of the systems already in place, saying you can't reinvent the wheel. But the Mallards look like a different team. They have five 20-plus goal-scorers for the first time since 2007, led by rookie Michael Parks' 29 tallies, the most since Mickey Lang scored 41 in 2013.
"What Phil's tried to bring is to play fast and transition from defense to offense as quick as possible," forward Grant Arnold said. "I think one of the best things he's done is he's realized how fast our team is and how deep. The systems we're playing now, it's such a quick transition that we're getting more chances and we're scoring more. It's fun."
The team speed had always been there. After all, Axtell made just two moves after taking over. Right off the bat, he traded the rights to defenseman Jake Baker — who spent most of the season in the AHL — to Florida for defenseman Alexander Kuqali; and then in February, Axtell traded longtime defenseman Mike Monfredo to Rapid City for forward Josh MacDonald.
With essentially the same team, Axtell found the right formula, turning the Mallards from a defensive team that averaged 2.89 goals under Ruskowski to a more offensive-minded one that has averaged 3.57 goals per game under Axtell.
"I think it was just a matter of time. I played against a lot of these guys in juniors so the first few weeks we could see where the speed was it was just a matter of getting the right line combinations and having everyone buy into it and having it click," defenseman Kevin Gibson said. "It’s such a long season, it takes time for that to happen. It’s not going to happen right away.
"It’s unfortunate we lost Terry in the process but at the same time, it’s great that we’re playing so well and I’m sure Phil is thrilled as well."
Perhaps the biggest change Axtell brought was in attitude. Ruskowski, an old-school coach with old-school methods, was often fiery in the locker room, while Axtell is much more reliant on positive reinforcement, just letting the players play.
But Axtell did show that he too can get fiery at times, jumping on his team after a sub-par first period in the penultimate weekend against the Alaska Aces. The team responded and scored three third-period goals to grab the win.
"He's pretty calm and collected in the locker room when he comes and talks to us," forward Justin Kovacs said. "I think (that fire) wakes us up a little bit. You never want to come out after a period and listen to your head coach scream at you between periods. I think that was good for us, I think it will help us with the starts of our game, being a little more fired up, be a little more ready, coming out hot."
Though that coaching change was the moment this season turned around, Axtell now enters uncharted territory — the playoffs. He was an assistant on Quad-City's playoff teams of the past two years, and his first goal is to get past the Fort Wayne Komets, whom the Mallards open up with in Indiana on Friday.
Under Ruskowski, the Mallards got out of the first round of the playoffs only once, another factor behind his release.
Regardless of how the season ends, either in the first round or with the Kelly Cup raised high over his head, Axtell's turnaround of this team has been a big source of pride for Melville, a verification that decision made after those late nights in January was not made in vain.
"I really believed in him and I thought, let's give Phil a chance, not as a lame-duck coach," he said. "Let's get him in when we have a chance, go through the coaching experience and see what he can do. He's done better than I thought he would do, and I was confident in that man.
"Somehow he's managed to motivate these guys to play for each other, for the team, for the city, and it's made a difference and it's fun to watch."