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Mike Leone is always trying to soak up information.

He'll read articles, ask questions and is never content to settle on any one answer.

It's a valuable asset for Leone in his first year of coaching. The Detroit native joined the Quad-City Mallards as an assistant coach after retiring just before the start of the season.

"If you don't aspire to be at the top, then you're just going to be average, and I don't want to be average," Leone said. "It's my passion. ... The really, really good coaches, they're always trying to learn, always trying to get better."

Leone has been fortunate to learn from several top coaches. He played for Jon Cooper — currently the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning — while in juniors with the North American Hockey League's St. Louis Bandits. Current Detroit Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill instructed Leone for one of Leone's three seasons in college with Western Michigan.

After turning pro and playing a year overseas with Villard-de-Lans in France, Leone joined the Toledo Walleye in 2014 and spent two years under the tutelage of Derek Lalonde, who is now with the AHL's Iowa Wild.

"They're not just great coaches, they're great people. They changed my life forever, more than I'll ever know," Leone said. "It's not so much X's and O's; their belief system in what they're doing and holding guys accountable and doing the right thing, it's very simple.

"I thank God every day I crossed paths with those three or four people who helped shape me into who I am today and who I want to be and the coach I aspire to be."

Leone only played three seasons of professional hockey, enjoying a career year with the Walleye in the 2015-16 season with seven goals and nine assists. But in a preseason game last year with the Walleye, Leone suffered the fifth concussion of his career. It caused him to miss all of last season, but he came into training camp with the Quad-City Mallards this offseason hoping for a chance to continue playing under rookie head coach Phil Axtell.

"I worked really hard this summer to try and come back, and I wanted to come here because I saw Phil was a young coach, and I heard nothing but great things," he said. "I thought I had a really good camp, scored a goal in the (preseason scrimmage)."

However, the Sunday before the start of the season, Leone got a text message from director of hockey operations Jon Piche while out on the golf course. Leone knew it likely meant he was getting cut but was given an unexpected opportunity when he met with Axtell.

"When I talked to Phil, I understood where he was coming from. I hadn't played in a whole year, I'm an older guy, and with my concussion issues I completely understand," he said. "He offered me the assistant coaching job, and obviously you're in shock, you don't know what to think. There's so many things running through your head at the time. It's emotional, for sure."

Axtell, in his first full year as head coach, knew he wanted an assistant coach and had plenty of candidates apply for the position. However he liked what Leone had to offer.

"It seems like everywhere he goes, they win, and I like having winners," Axtell said. "He's hungry, he works hard and he wants to get better every day."

Leone talked it over with those closest to him, and Blashill especially gave him important advice.

"He didn't tell me to retire but told me 'It's hard to get into the coaching world,'" Leone said. "'You'd be 29 and coaching professional hockey, and I know you always wanted to do this, and you've got to do what's right for you.'"

Lalonde seconded the advice, calling the decision a "no-brainer."

Leone accepted the offer, retiring in the process, and has been responsible for coaching the defense and the penalty kill. While the defense has struggled early, the penalty kill has been solid, ranked 14th in the league with an 82.9 percent success rate.

Axtell and Leone are still learning the ins and outs of this business, and they're continuing to grow together along with the team.

"It's been great, to bounce ideas off of a second set of eyes. It's been awesome," Axtell said. "It's different for me, but I trust him. He's a hockey nut, and the trust is a huge thing. It's a work in progress, but I think we're doing well.

"Just like with the players, this is a developmental league. I'm here developing. He's here developing as a coach now. As long as we give 100 percent, I'm not going to be terribly disappointed if we make mistakes."

So far Leone doesn't regret his decision and has made the transition well from being one of the guys to being a coach. He's found a way to stay in the sport he loves and a way to continue to learn every day.

"At first it was tough, especially going back (for a game against Toledo) was pretty emotional. I spent three great years there," Leone said. "That was the only time I really missed it. I think if I had another job, an accountant or something like that, I'd miss it a lot more, but since I'm in the game, I love it. I love it more than playing.

"I wouldn't say it's been an easy transition, but I know this is what I'm supposed to be doing for the rest of my life."


Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times