Subscribe for 33¢ / day

Greg Amlong knows this feeling all too well. 

Amlong was at Elmira last year and watched as the Jackals ceased operations after 17 seasons as a franchise.

Tuesday the defenseman went through the same experience again as the Quad-City Mallards announced it will cease operations at the end of the season.

"It's obviously unfortunate, guys were pretty shocked, we didn't see it coming," Amlong said. "I don't want that to be on my resume, a guy who's folding teams. It is what it is, it happens all the time in leagues like this with money and owners. It's unfortunate, but you've got to look to the future and move on."

The players were informed of owner Jordan Melville's decision Tuesday morning before their practice at the River's Edge. The decision was made a week ago, but players said they weren't expecting the news.

"I've never been a part of anything like this, so it's not like I knew the warning signs," defenseman Alexander Kuqali said. "A lot of guys have experienced a lot of firsts this year and I think that's what we're really doing at this point. We're trying to play hockey and bring the best that we can on the ice, and in the weight room and conduct ourselves like professionals."

For some of the players, this could mean the end of their playing careers. The ECHL announced Tuesday it approved a hockey team in St. John's, Newfoundland, so there will be options in the ECHL and overseas, if they wish to pursue them.

For the coaching staff and front office, it's not so simple.

"From the staff and the players to the front office, top to bottom, there are people that are looking for jobs now, not just the players," Kuqali said. "It's unfortunate too for the fans, because hockey has been here for 23 years. That's a really long time and I'm sure they've had good and bad seasons and I don't want to be remembered for having the season we did." 

For head coach Phil Axtell, this news hits deeper than most. The Mallards gave him a second chance as a player in 2010, then after he squandered that chance with a alcohol-involved car crash, the team again took a chance, hiring him as an assistant in 2014.

He was promoted to interim head coach after the team fired Terry Ruskowski last season and went 21-12-2, helping guide the team to a 40-win season and fifth straight playoff berth. This year, however, the Mallards are 20-37-4 and in last place in the league.

"I don't think it's really set in yet, how low today is. For not only the hockey, but the community, the fans, it's tough," Axtell said. "I feel embarrassed that this has happened with me as head coach and I wish I had the ability to have made changes I felt necessary to help the team and organization."

Axtell had been trying to make improvements. Last week, he traded his top two offensive players, Sam Warning and Brayden Low, in deals that would have paid out this summer.

"It's really frustrating because it was easily the hardest decision I made as a coach, to trade Sam away for (Quentin Shore) and two other top-10 players for next year, along with Low, we get (Nick Bligh) but also a top-6 forward from Wichita was supposed to be coming," Axtell said. "You go back to the Warning thing, there was a substantial financial contribution from Florida that was for me to fund travel in and travel out of tryout players to try and find guys for next year."

Now, he'll never get the chance to make his moves work next season. Instead, the team has 11 games left, five at the TaxSlayer Center, to show what Axtell was hoping to build and to say thank you to the fans who stuck with them through a tumultuous season.

The Mallards host the Toledo Walleye tonight at 6:30.

"Phil is trying to rebuild and I think he's done a good job and I think we have a pretty good team here, as much as we've had a tough season," forward Alex Globke said. "It's a lot of new guys and a lot of new faces and kind of a new energy right now and unfortunately this news is, not really a derailer but a road bump. Now, at the end of the day, these last five (home games) are for the fans and we have to do everything we can to show them our support."

There were many factors involved in the decision, but Melville admitted if the team looked like the 40-win team from last year, the decision would be much harder.

That's something the coaching staff and players will have to live with.

Melville, much like he did after a meeting with the players in January, made it clear where the buck stops.

"If anyone’s to blame for this it’s me. No one else," he said. "If anyone wants to be angry or upset with someone, I’ll say I’m the one that calls the shots and I’m not going to shy away from that. If people are going to be upset with me and think I could have done a better job, they’re probably right, maybe there’s something I could have done differently.

"Everyone else did the job they were asked to do."


Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times