By Bobby Metcalf, Quad-City Times
Twelve years and nine teams later, Jamie Tardif is back in the ECHL.
A lot has changed in his absence.
"It's definitely different from when I was here," Tardif said. "Back then it was more of a league where you go to kind of retire and settle things down where, now it's just so young and fast. ... You don't really understand how young the game is in North America and how well these kids can skate and move and the skill level."
At 32, Tardif is the oldest player on the Quad-City Mallards this season, serving as the team's first player-assistant coach since the Mallards joined the ECHL in 2014.
He started his professional career in 2006 with the Toledo Storm in the ECHL before getting a midseason call-up to the AHL. Tardif played one game for the Manitoba Moose, two with the Iowa Stars and 27 with the Grand Rapids Griffins to close out that season, setting off an eight-year stint in the AHL that also saw him receive a brief two-game call-up to the NHL's Boston Bruins.
Before joining the Mallards, he played the last three seasons with the Mannheim Eagles in the German Deutsche Eishockey Liga.
"What these guys are going through now, being young and in the ECHL, I went through it, and I think that’s one of the biggest assets I have," he said. "The leadership, knowing what it takes to get to the next level and stay at the next level."
With his career winding down, Tardif knew he wanted to get into coaching but wasn't quite ready to be done as a player.
It was actually Bob McNamara — who was let go as Mallards president and general manager Tuesday — who had a big influence in getting Tardif to come to the Quad-Cities. McNamara was the general manager of the Grand Rapids Griffins for 15 seasons, five of which overlapped with Tardif's stint with the Griffins.
"Bob is the reason why I’m here," Tardif said. "Unfortunately that is part of the business. ... It’s unfortunate, and I wish him the best."
Tardif's return to the ECHL has been a little less heralded than possibly expected for someone who came into this year with 177 goals and 177 assists. He had just two points in his first eight games and then missed six games with an upper body injury.
"I knew there was definitely going to be a little break-in period, whether it’s the ice size of where I played the last three years, the skill level and different things," Tardif said. "I haven’t played a back-to-back game here in almost four years so to do the back-to-backs and three-in-threes and all the bus travel, all that combined has definitely created some challenges."
Since his return on Nov. 24, however, Tardif, who also serves as assistant captain, appears to be settling in. He has six points in the last seven games heading into Thursday's game against Indy, including his first two goals of the season. He's also done a better job of creating opportunities for himself, averaging nearly half a shot per game more since returning from the injury.
"I’ve been around long enough to judge myself, whether it’s a good game or bad," he said. "It’s a matter of staying the course and staying positive, and that’s hard for a lot of players to do. It’s coming around now so hopefully it can continue."
Tardif's recent play is a welcome addition to a team that is trying to find an offensive identity. The Mallards lost forward Justin Kovacs to Europe this week but have also added some scoring with the return of Chris Francis and Gergo Nagy.
This added play from Tardif can hopefully help lift the Mallards out of the cellar of the Central Division.
"It's longer than I would have liked for him to come around, but he's coming around," head coach Phil Axtell said. "He's not the fastest, he's not the quickest, but he's smart. He knows where to be, when to be there, knows how to get there in time, and he's a great voice in the locker room for the young guys."
The role of player-assistant has also taken some time to get used to.
One of Tardif's initial roles was to be in charge of the power play, but the Mallards started the season 0 for 15 on the man advantage through the first four games. That led Axtell to take over control, and since that decision, the Mallards are 13 for 63, operating at 20.6 percent, which is seventh-best in the ECHL over that span.
"Coming in, even through training camp, I think it was not knowing anyone on this team, who's a power play guy and who's not?" Tardif said. "You've just got to try and find different fits, and that was a challenge. ... Now we're starting to see it, it's getting better, but I still think we've got a little ways to go."
With the power play off of his shoulders, Tardif spent time helping out with video and being a leader in the locker room to the young team while also focusing on getting his game back in shape.
Axtell maintained before the season he wanted Tardif to be a player first and a coach second. Now that the player is settling into his role on the ice, Axtell is feeling confident to increase his duties off of it, including giving him back the power play this week.
"That was the plan, and if he was great off the bat, it probably would have happened sooner, but it's all new to all of us," Axtell said "He's got a great hockey brain, and I think we've settled in with each other a little bit. I think he's going to be an asset to the team."