Six months ago, there was a stainless steel, flux-capacitor-ready DeLorean pulling into the i wireless Center carrying with it the long-traveled and long-awaited message that hockey was indeed returning to the Quad-Cities for a 15th season. And so were the beloved Mallards.|
Six months later, all eyes still are gazing "back to the future," curious to see how the "new" Mallards will fare on and off the ice.
The on-ice product is easier to analyze. QC struggled for wins early, and still struggles for consistency, but at least delivered success more frequently over the last two months. As with many expansion teams — especially ones forced to build a roster in two months — growing pains can be expected.
It's the success outside of the boards that will make or break hockey's future in the Quad-Cities beyond this year season.
Mallards owner Chris Lencheski and co-owner Eric Galler signed a lease agreement to keep hockey in the i wireless Center until 2014. But the Quad City Flames were supposed to be here longer than the two years they stayed, yielding unfortunate proof such decisions are dictated by the almighty dollar.
Lencheski has been unwavering in his belief that this is a long-term stay for his franchise. Shawn Hackman is the man he put in charge to run the organization. The Mallards general manager said, financially, the team is OK.
"Things are going fine, and we're always striving for more," Hackman said. "We'd like to see some additional sponsors come in here for the second half of the season to help us promote and get the word out."
Sponsors have been supportive, Hackman said. Others, he said, simply couldn't sign on in July because of timing issues. It was the hope of maintaining corporate sponsors that kept hockey here in the first place.
While the option of "going dark" for a year was on the table, Scott Mullen, i wireless Center executive director, still believes that taking a year off would have been the wrong decision.
"Continuity was important from many perspectives," Mullen said. "Corporate partners that had supported the Flames already had hockey sponsorship dollars built into their budgets, and if it went away for a year, how many companies in this economic climate would have had the ability to put new money back into their budget after it had been cut out for a year?"
As for the future of hockey in the Q-C, Mullen said the fans will make the call.
"We were assured that the team is here for the long haul," Mullen said, "and I am really looking forward to them developing this year and beyond, but at the end of the day, it is up to the people of the Quad-Cities as to how long hockey stays in this community."
While season ticket prices went up in cost, concession prices went down as promised. It is attendance that is the key number, and it is also the foggiest fact to figure.
The Mallards are announcing an average of 3,852 — second in the IHL — but clearly draw fewer fans into the cavernous horseshoe-shaped arena on game night.
"I think we do it a little differently than other teams, how we've measured that," Hackman said, calling the announced totals "tickets sold."
"If you go online right now, and try to buy an Ice Row Cold Pass, you can't buy them," Hackman added. "They are sold out."
He acknowledges that those special seats are not filled nightly and that there are not 100 fans taking advantage of the locker-room access that comes with them.
"That's something we're trying to address," he said of the no-shows. "We want every ticket that's out there to be used. We're looking into where these tickets are coming from and trying to gauge where we can do better."
Jim Utter and his wife Vickie, both of Silvis, said seat-jumping — when fans a cheaper seat and then sit in empty ones closer to the ice — should be addressed. It is what led them to buy one season-ticket package instead of two, something they had done for more than 10 years.
Vickie Utter also said she wishes there were more giveaways for the loyal fans as well as more parties and season-ticket-holder gatherings with the players, a disconnect that she said was promised to be mended under the new ownership.
She also wants the ability to exchange unused season tickets for games any time during the year.
They will concede to one thing, though: The hockey is entertaining. Mullen agrees.
"I have managed several arenas around the country that have housed pro sports teams at all professional levels," Mullen said, "and I have yet to see a sport that is as exciting to watch as hockey."
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