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Though the announcement seemingly came out of nowhere Friday morning, the decision to relieve Terry Ruskowski of his duties as head coach and general manager was not one taken lightly by the Quad-City Mallards.

That was evident at the news conference at iWireless Center.

Team president Bob McNamara choked up while making the announcement. Newly-named interim head coach Phil Axtell looked visibly shocked, still reeling from the news he'd be taking over from the man who helped resurrect his hockey career as a coach.

"It was difficult, really, really difficult," McNamara said. "However, at some point, when you're put in position to run an organization, you've got to make decisions with your head, and not your heart."

McNamara has known Ruskowski for the better part of 20 years, when they were working for rival franchises in the International Hockey League.

Axtell's relationship with Ruskowski began three years ago, when he approached the longtime head coach looking for a chance years after numerous mistakes and bad choices culminated in a single-car, alcohol-related car accident that ended his playing career here in 2010.

Ruskowski took a chance on Axtell, making him his first assistant coach after 19 years of coaching. Now, Axtell is replacing him.

"I love that man," Axtell said of Ruskowski. "It's not measurable."

While his exit was an unceremonious one, Ruskowski should be remembered for the part he played in saving the Mallards' organization.

When he came to the Mallards in 2012, Ruskowski was already highly-regarded in the hockey world. As a player, he captained four professional teams, three in the NHL, and played with legends such as Gordie Howe. As a coach he had won 589 games, including two championships with the Laredo Bucks.

Somehow, someway, the Mallards hired him one day after the resignation of David Bell.

His first year was fraught with uncertainty and turmoil. The now-defunct Central Hockey League and current owner Jordan Melville swooped in late to save the team from extinction, but all the strife led to player uncertainty, a late training camp and a sense of panic from the fan base.

Ruskowski responded with maybe the best coaching job of his career. The Mallards won their first game under Ruskowski, a 4-3 overtime game against Tulsa, then rattled off 11 wins in the final 13 games to finish 34-26-6, good for sixth in the CHL standings and a playoff spot.

Though the team lost in five games to Fort Worth in the first round, it quickly became clear that under Ruskowski, the Mallards would be competitive.

"I think it's a guy that came in and basically was a part of saving an organization," McNamara said. "If he comes in and doesn't have success and we don't make the playoffs, maybe Jordan's family decides, 'This is not so good and we're going to flip the team after the first year.' But, it was successful and a big part of that was Terry. He came in late, he put together a team and amazingly he made the playoffs and then made the playoffs again and probably had a hand in making certain that hockey stayed here."

The next year, Ruskowski guided the Mallards to their first postseason series win since 2003 and one game away from a CHL Finals appearance, falling to the eventual champion Allen Americans in seven games.

But the move to the much-deeper ECHL made runs like that more difficult, and with so much more talent, Ruskowski's grind-it-out mentality that worked so well in the gritty CHL didn't translate quite as well to the more skillful ECHL.

There were also some roster moves that look terrible in hindsight. Kyle Thomas was cut one game into his rookie season in 2014. Now the forward has 20 goals and is fifth in the league with 47 points for rival Fort Wayne.

Joe Perry led the Mallards with 26 goals as a rookie in 2014, but, in part due to pressure from the Iowa Wild, Ruskowski traded him to Alaska for Olivier Archambault the following season. Archambault did lead the Mallards with 52 points in just 50 games, but left after one season. Perry, meanwhile, has scored 21 goals this year for the Orlando Solar Bears.

If Ruskowski had held onto any one of those players, perhaps the Mallards don't go into a month-long slide of losing seven of eight games, and perhaps no coaching change was necessary.

And perhaps, after four-and-a-half seasons, the team just no longer responded to the old-school coaching style of Ruskowski, who was the second-oldest coach in the league.

But that doesn't change the impact he made in his time here. Personable and always quick with a joke, Ruskowski quickly endeared himself to the fans, the community and the players.

"He's just a really kind person and he's a good guy, a good human and a great role model," forward Grant Arnold said. "I'm sure whoever has talked to him knows that. To see him go like that, it definitely sparked a fire under the boys."

Ruskowski is the only coach Mike Monfredo has ever known, one of the last signings before that first season in 2012. Monfredo is the only player left from that team, and now has to adjust to a new voice.

"It's sad to see it happen to anybody, players or coaches," defenseman Mike Monfredo said. "He gave me that great opportunity five years ago and stuck with me through it so I wish him the best in the future."

Monfredo has been part of these January slides before, and since the team has always righted the ship in the final months of the season, he didn't ever expect that Ruskowski wouldn't last past the all-star break.

"I didn't see it happening this year, maybe in the future years, not giving him an extra contract extension," Monfredo said. "I figured they'd wait it out but they thought necessary to get it done early so respect to those guys up (in the front office) who have to make that tough decision."

Nick Grasso hasn't played much for Ruskowski recently, but his first two professional seasons were with the Mallards and he was brought back to the team last week from the SPHL.

Ruskowski was giving him another chance, another trait that was evident throughout the coach's time here. Though losing players like Thomas and Perry hurt, Ruskowski for the most part was incredibly loyal to his players, sometimes faultingly so. He'd often hold onto guys who were underperforming, hoping they'd turn it around, or would sometimes give a player another opportunity, like he did last week with Grasso.

"I think we were all shocked, it wasn't just some of us, we were all shocked," Grasso said. "I'm gonna miss him, he brought me back and I respect him for that."

Ruskowski isn't done. Though he is 62, he says he still wants to stay in hockey but didn't say he's married to coaching. For now, he's headed back to Dallas, where he's looking forward to spending time with his wife, children and grandchildren.

"I can't just sit around and do nothing, that's not me," he said. "Maybe the break will get me rejuvenated again to get back to coaching, try to put a team together and try to win a championship with somebody."

With his resume, teams could do a lot worse.


Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times