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Between exit interviews, Phil Axtell sat in his office Monday morning thinking about his tenure with the Quad-City Mallards.

He remembered Frank Anzalone, the former head coach who gave him another chance at a playing career back in 2010. He also remembered former team president Bob McNamara and head coach Terry Ruskowski, who brought Axtell on as an inexperienced assistant coach in 2014, willing to groom someone who was passionate about hockey.

"Especially Terry. He’s a good man. He gave me a chance ... my last chance, helped give me a career," Axtell said. "Win or lose, he helped me, he helped develop me."

Axtell's first foray into head coaching was filled with ups and downs. He won 21 games after taking over for Ruskowski midway through last season, helping guide the team to 40 wins for the first time since 2006.

This season was not so smooth.

The Mallards finished the year 25-42-5, the worst record in the league and in franchise history, which potentially comes to an end after owner Jordan Melville announced in March the team was ceasing operations.

Barring a return, Axtell finishes his Mallards career 46-54-7 and with plenty of lessons for the future.

"A lot of learning, good and bad," he said. "What to do, what not to do, what to do again."

Axtell and the Mallards had a lot of things go against them this year. Captain Chris Francis was injured in training camp and out until December, then traded. Goaltenders C.J. Motte and Ivan Kulbakov combined to play 50 of the team's 72 games and the Mallards won just four games without them.

A new affiliation with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights handicapped the amount of AHL talent on the roster, with just four players from the AHL's Chicago Wolves playing stints with the Mallards.

Despite all that, there were stretches this year where Axtell and the Mallards showed some potential, highlighted by a 10-5-1 stretch in January and February that was capped by a 4-3 win over Central Division champion Toledo.

But it wasn't enough to overcome a 13-game losing streak early in the season, during which McNamara was let go.

"Sometimes people call it the hockey gods, I call it sheer happenstance," forward Alex Globke said. "We played well at times but I think there were times when we let up and I think that's what, the season for me came down to our lapses."

Though there was a lot of turnover, there were highlights from those left standing. Defenseman Willie Raskob earned all-star honors while finishing third among rookies with 35 assists. Rookie Matt Pohlkamp finished with a team-high 19 goals and 44 points while Globke enjoyed a breakout last two months, scoring eight goals and adding 17 assists, grabbing 25 of his 36 total points in his final 29 games.

"Early on, we had a lot of expectations, we had a really good team, if you look on paper," Globke said. "We lost a lot of really good players this year, it's just sometimes that's the way the season goes and we weren't able to make the most of the opportunity."

Even when things were at their worst, Axtell had the team playing hard, especially at the end.

The Mallards finished the season 5-4-1 and were 5-5-1 after Melville's announcement.

"There were a lot of ups and downs throughout the season and the way he held himself throughout the whole year was incredible, especially near the end," Globke said. "As a team we could have easily packed it in ... but Phil came in every day and said, 'Let's go boys.'"

Axtell, 31, isn't done with hockey. He hopes to land a job as an assistant with either an AHL or ECHL team next season and also wouldn't be opposed to scouting, which he has an eye for.

It was Axtell who saw the talent in former player Sam Warning, the team's ECHL franchise leader in games (174), goals (56) and assists (60). It was Axtell who traded for Raskob after one game and Axtell who brought in players like Brayden Low and Globke for breakout years.

"He gave me the chance that I always wanted, that I always dreamed about," Globke said. "I was planning on being done and he gave me a chance to come back and play."

Whether or not hockey is in the Quad-Cities next year still remains to be seen but the support the team received in its final week inspired optimism. More than 15,000 people came out for the last three games of the year, including a season-high 7,014 for the finale.

Axtell thinks that support shows what this sport once meant to the community and perhaps what it can mean again.

"That was the largest crowd that I’ve ever addressed," Axtell said. "I’ve been here and have heard and seen pictures of the days when this place was standing room only for a regular season game.

"Hockey is, in my opinion the best sport on earth and if you’re able to find that audience again, I don’t think it matters if it’s peewee hockey. As long as it’s fast and physical and competitive and you try and find those fans, I don’t think it matters what level it is."


Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times