It was a mid-week game this past November and the TaxSlayer Center — or whatever you call it — was empty.
The team from my hometown, the Adirondack Thunder, were in town to play the Quad-City Mallards. I'm a bit of a regular when the local ECHL team is at home and, almost universally, the arena in Moline is at less than half-capacity.
But this Wednesday night game was different. I'd guess there were less than 700 in the seats.
I can't say I'm shocked that Mallards ownership called it quits on Tuesday. I doubt anyone is, at least those who went to a few games and saw just how empty the place was. Ticket sales are everything in the minors. The Mallards weren't a hot one. That's been true for years, even when the team was good, a fact sports columnist Don Doxsie has pointed to more than once.
The Mallards haven't played quality hockey this year. OK, let's be honest, it's been terrible. But you could say that about the ECHL as a whole, a noticeably slower and sloppier level of play compared to the American Hockey League I grew up watching before the Red Wings abandoned upstate New York.
Even in the handful of wins I've seen this season, the Mallards were consistently a step behind than their opponent, out-shot and out-hustled. The squad's power play was downright egregious.
But on one night earlier this season, I witnessed a kid from eastern Europe make 57 saves in his third professional start, in one of the most impressive individual efforts I've seen. Until recently, The Mallards had this forward, Sam Warning, who was a joy to watch. Too small by traditional metrics, he was quick and an above average puck handler. I'd wait for his shifts.
There were reasons to watch the Mallards.
Whiskey helped, too.
Thing is, you shouldn't have to be into hockey to mourn the loss of the region's squad. The corruption of major, big-money sports is very much a sociopolitical disaster. Billionaire NFL owners have held hostage dozens of cash-poor counties for shiny new stadiums within which to wine and dine the American aristocracy. Tier I college sports are undermining the very purpose of hundreds of public universities, while providing those very same owners a taxpayer subsidized developmental system. And USA Olympics turned a blind eye to decades of sexual abuse by one of its physicians.
And then, there are the minors. There's a certain purity to minor league sports, such as the ECHL. They are, at some level, isolated from the stink that festers above them. And, at least for hockey and baseball, by their very existence, they've not contributed to the perversion of college athletics like football and basketball.
Perhaps, though, the community component is what really matters here. I come from hockey country. Hell, had the War of 1812 gone the other way, my accent would have a distinct French inflection and my health care funded by the government. In my two years here, I've yet to see evidence that the Quad-Cities is a "hockey town."
But the presence of minor league sports contributes to the overall sense of a place. It's the difference between a big town and a small city.
On Tuesday, the Quad-Cities felt a little more like just a few disparate towns.