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031618-MALLARDS-TOLEDO-WALLEYE-019

Quad-City Mallards forward Ryan McGrath (16) takes the ice as the team is announced before their game at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline on Friday, March 16, 2018.

As the Quad-City Mallards prepare for their last week in the ECHL, it has been hard not to think about all the ups and downs the sport of hockey has endured here in the last 23 years.

There were plenty of highs early — championships, 50-win seasons and so much support the only way some fans could watch games was through closed circuit television.

Even in the time since, outside of a failed experiment with the American Hockey League, there were bright spots — a riveting pair of seven-game playoff series in 2014 and a 40-win season last year.

However, those days are long gone as the team will cease operations after Saturday's game against the Cincinnati Cyclones, possibly the last time professional hockey will be played in the Quad-Cities.

There are still people interested in seeing the sport succeed here. TaxSlayer Center executive director Scott Mullen has been working to bring in a new owner, adamant there's still enough support to keep hockey sustainable.

It's time for the Quad-Cities to prove him right.

Fans of the Mallards and fans of hockey need to show up for the last three games this week and show just how important the sport is to the community.

If the TaxSlayer Center could fill the building, think how attractive that would be to any prospective owner trying to decide whether a minor league hockey team is worth the investment.

If the usual 2,000 fans show up for Wednesday's game against the Rapid City Rush or the average 3,300 fans show up for this weekend's finale, does that really scream, "We want hockey?"

Conversely, pack the place and it might send the message that this really is something worth keeping around.

Even if an owner isn't found and these truly are the last hockey games in the area for the foreseeable future, fans should come out and try to soak up all they can of the sport before it's gone for good.

Beyond the future, this team still deserves one last hurrah. Yes, it's the worst team in franchise history, currently fighting with the Rush for last place in the league, but there are players on this team who have stuck it out through every catastrophe of the season.

Eric Hartzell has been the third goaltender for nearly four months, relegated to mainly sitting in the stands before winning his last two starts. Alexander Kuqali played part of the season with a broken hand. There are several players battling through the injuries that come with a six-month grind of a season, still taking the ice every night with nothing to play for.

Some players have left, but most have all stuck with the team through all the losses, team strife and front office decisions. Most fans have left, but some still remain, passionate and true to the team no matter what.

They'll be there this week, and it's that kind of loyalty that is harder and harder to find.

It's unlikely games will ever again reach the kind of fever-pitch level of excitement of 20 years ago. Hockey owners can't market much besides the sport to try and bring in fans. The game has to sell itself and on paper, that shouldn't be hard. It's fast and physical, an exciting sport that is actually better live than on television.

However, clearly selling hockey is not easy.

Very few teams in the ECHL make money and the league has lost an average of two teams a year for the last 11 years. But some of those failures are due to poor management and owners unwilling to pay a hefty bill to play in an expensive league every year.

Mullen is banking that those are the reasons the Mallards have failed in years past and not because people just don't care.

Three nights of sellout crowds would be all the evidence he needs.

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Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times