Time to put the glory days of the Mallards in the past

Photo by Sean Flynn Photography

Don Doxsie wrote an article saying that the Mallards’ glory days aren’t coming back. I have no idea why he chose to write this as they head into their first home playoff game. Also, Bobby Metcalf at the Times does an excellent job covering the Mallards, which makes this opinion piece even more baffling. In my opinion, Doxsie painted an incomplete picture of the past and present of the Mallards franchise.

League Quality

Doxsie admits that the ECHL has a higher talent level than the old Colonial Hockey League and United Hockey League. I’d argue that the ECHL is much better for fans in the long run. Those old leagues were like a janitor buying a mansion with an adjustable rate mortgage – amazing at first but never going to last.

The features of the UHL and CoHL that allowed the Mallards to flourish also caused several teams to fold. Eventually, it nearly caused the Mallards to fold, too. Those old leagues had a soft salary cap. Teams could spend as much as they wanted, but had to pay a luxury tax if they spent over a certain amount. If your team had a lot of money, you could have a good team every year. If your team didn’t, you were doomed. The Mallards experienced both. In the beginning when attendance skyrocketed, things snowballed and went amazingly well. Towards the end, things snowballed in the opposite direction. If you are going to credit the old CoHL and UHL with helping the Mallards succeed, they also deserve some blame for nearly causing them to fold.

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Mallards vs Trashers playoff game in 2006

The nadir came in 2006. The Mallards lost in 7 games in the first round of the playoffs to the Danbury Trashers. The Mallards came into the playoffs on a tear, and fans were starting to get excited and come back to the Mark in big numbers. Losing that series killed that momentum. After the season, it was revealed that the Trashers were owned by the actual mafia and had tripled the salary cap. It was unlikely that they paid the luxury taxes for going over the salary cap. The UHL commissioner’s voice appeared on surveillance tapes. The blatant cheating by the Trashers killed a great chance for the Mallards to revive their franchise. Why would we want to go back to a league like that?

Finally, Doxsie seems to suggest that parity is kind of a bad thing since no teams end up with really high win totals. The flip side is that more teams feel like they have a chance. Having strong parity seems to work great in the NHL. Parity is better for the long-term health of the league and teams within it. Teams in the ECHL may still occasionally fold, but it won’t be because they got steamrolled repeatedly by the same handful of rich (and possibly corrupt) teams.

Team Quality

Nobody can say that the current Mallards team compares to the levels of winning of the 1990s teams. But the level of play of the ECHL is higher. Mallards players today are much more likely to make it to the NHL than players from those 90s teams. We’ve already had dozens move up to the AHL. Steve Michalek has joined the Minnesota Wild but not gotten into a game yet.

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Brandon Marino

There have been many notable highlights in the more recent seasons of the Mallards. A couple years ago they won their first playoff series in 11 years. They then pushed the Allen Americans to the brink of elimination, coming as close to beating them as any team has during their four-year run of championships. This year, the Mallards had one of their longest winning streaks in franchise history.

In 2012, Brandon Marino won the MVP award of the Central Hockey League’s All-Star game. Normally, that would be big news. The Times did not mention it on their web site at first. Instead, they ran a story that night about how the team was struggling financially. A story about Marino did appear on the site later.

I and several other annoyed Mallards fans wrote an email to Doxsie to complain about the snub. I still have the emails. His response was that their coverage had not diminished much even though the team had “declined in attendance and quality since the 1990s”. If he had paid attention, he would have realized that the team had increased in quality for 3 straight years by that time. That 2011-12 team was one of the most entertaining ones in years. Brandon Marino would later earn MVP honors for the full season. This was a huge achievement for Marino and the team.

Attendance

Just because attendance was so high back in the 1990s does not mean we should feel bad that our attendance is merely around the league average now. If anything it shows there is room for growth. They will not average 9,000 per game again, but they can certainly do better.

The main reason for the slight decrease in attendance this year was due to the end of $1 beer night. Ending $1 beer night was actually an improvement for hockey fans, as they often had to endure obnoxious drunk people. The fans showing up this year are there to see the Mallards and are not there for cheap beer. Also, the decline of $1 beer night fans was partially offset by a modest increase in normal fans. If they had not continued to increase their attendance in other ways, ending $1 beer night would have caused a larger drop in attendance than it did.

Doxsie mentioned that the Mallards curtain off much of the upper bowl. The Mallards are not unique in this. The Milwaukee Admirals, Tulsa Oilers and Iowa Wild have all used curtains. I’m sure there are more. Have Des Moines newspapers ever written an opinion piece lamenting the Iowa Wild using a curtain for their upper bowl? I doubt it.

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Walls Fargo Arena in Des Moines with a curtain over the upper bowl.

Doxsie closes the article with:

“… if the Mallards can win a few more games and maybe win a championship one of these years, maybe they can at least remove those curtains from the upper deck.”

I don’t know if he is aware that the Mallards had two games this year where the upper bowl curtain was removed due to large crowds.

Rivalries

The rivalries back in the old CoHL and UHL were legendary. The potential for rivalries in the ECHL is not as high, but it’s still there. There is no reason why the Mallards should not be big rivals with the Komets. The Mallards played the Komets 12 times this season, and will play them at least 4 more times in the playoffs. That is plenty enough times for a rivalry to develop. If the Mallards finally hold up their end of this rivalry, it could take off.

Anyone who talks to Mallards fans would know that they almost universally hate the Komets. Their newspaper writers are arrogant and have frequently disregarded or belittled the Mallards over the years. After game one of this playoff series, the headline of one article included the words “ho hum”. A few years back, they openly mocked the Mallards as they were struggling with various ownership changes.

One reason rivalries took off in the 1990s was because our local media covered all the details of them! If someone in the rival city ever said anything negative about the Mallards, it made the newspapers here. The same opportunity still exists.  The media does not create rivalries by itself, but they can help them along a great deal.

Conclusion

My frustration with this article and the previous ones like it is that they reveal that Doxsie is not paying attention to these details, or simply just doesn’t care. He does not take the time to view the Mallards from the perspective of their current fans, or even try to understand why people like this team enough to buy season tickets.

The things that have happened with the Mallards in the last 3 years are a lot more relevant than what happened in 1997. It’s time to finally put the past in the past, and realize that we have a good thing going on here in the present. If the Mallards ever contend seriously for another cup, it won’t be like the 1990s. It will be very cool and fun in its own way, and the accomplishment will stand on its own two webbed feet.