In a bizarre pregame ritual, Walt Poddubny plops onto a couch, slices a banana into his raisin bran and milk, and plunges a tape into his VCR. As the goons on the screen run through a repertoire of mayhem, Poddubny, a center for the New York Rangers, catalogues the carnage. He identifies slapshots—the forehand, the backhand, the traveling multiple-face slap—before moving on to eye pokes, nose tweaks, skull bashes and two-handed head clunks. These goons aren't the Broad Street Bullies. They're far more notorious merchants of menace: Moe, Larry and Curly, the Three Stooges. "They're crazy, crazy, crazy!" says Poddubny's sparky mother, Nadia. "Walt watches them over and over, and never gets tired of them. They calm him down. They lift him up. They're like medicine."
So maybe a dose of the Stooges before a game might be a tonic for the whole NHL. Last season, while the Rangers were in a state of Stooge-like disarray and 16 players did the Curly Shuffle through their roster, Poddubny was New York's most consistent scoring threat, leading the Rangers in points with 40 goals and 47 assists. He even had a 15-game scoring streak, one shy of the team record set by Mike Rogers in 1982. This season, while New York has been just as lousy—it was 4-9-3 at week's end—Poddubny has been just as effective. Through Saturday's 5-4 defeat by the Los Angeles Kings, he had a team-high 11 goals and 12 assists, despite having missed one game after he suffered a mild concussion and a bruised right shoulder on Nov. 3 in another loss, 5-3 to the Calgary Flames.
Poddubny, center Marcel Dionne and speedy Finnish right wing Tomas Sandstrom give the Rangers whatever attack they have. Sandstrom outskates defensemen and outwits goalies; he popped in 40 goals and assisted on 34 others in only 64 games last season, and had 17 points in New York's first 16 games this season, behind Dionne's 21. In contrast, Poddubny hovers in the slot, waiting for the pass that will unleash what may be the hardest shot in the league.
"There's something about Walt that reminds me of myself a lot of years ago," says Rangers general manager Phil Esposito, a five-time NHL scoring champ when he played for Boston and a Stoogephile himself. "But he's a much better skater than I was and has a much faster release. He's not an easy guy to pick the puck off."
Poddubny strides around the rink with a long, loping gait that's deceptively quick. He's a 6'1", 205-pounder who shoots without a windup, snapping off shots with the strength of his wrists and forearms. The puck flies off the ice so fast that goalies often react more out of fear than skill. "Walt's a big, big man with a heavy, heavy shot," says Ranger left wing Don Maloney. "I don't know if he got it milking cows as a kid or what."
Actually Poddubny, 27, works on the shot during the summer in the backyard of his parents' home in Thunder Bay, Ont. His younger brother, Peter, 17, feeds him 200 pucks in rapid succession on a fiberglass slab. Poddubny whacks them at a woodpile until his wrists are too sore to continue.
When Walt and his wife, Tammy, are in Thunder Bay, he often holes up in his parents' basement, a temple of sorts that he and Peter have dedicated to the Three Stooges. Enshrined there are movie stills, buttons, posters, biographies, comic books, trading cards, scrap-books and nearly 200 Stooges shorts and features, from Woman Haters (1934) to The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1963). Poddubny keeps a little black book in which he has rated each film. His favorite is An Ache in Every Stake, a Curly classic in which the boys bop one other with frying pans, gouge one another with ice tongs and commit otherwise cheerful acts of Stoogerie. He has made a pilgrimage to the Stooges' star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and he belongs to a Stooges fan club.
Poddubny's hesitant smile and placid demeanor conceal his Stoogemania. "I never need an alarm clock when Walt's my roommate," says Jan Erixon, another leftwinger on the Rangers. "He wakes me up with the Tre Idioter every morning."
Poddubny's lantern jaw and jutting features have led some teammates to call him Sarge, after pro wrestler Sgt. Slaughter. Others just call him enigmatic. "The guy sits in his stall and doesn't say much," says Ranger center Pierre Larouche. "He's a pretty weird dude."
Poddubny isn't the sound that sated elephants make after supper. "It's Ukrainian for 'under the oak tree,' " says Nadia, whose maiden name was Peremeszko. "The Poddubnys are solid family." She and Michael, Walt's father, are Ukrainian immigrants who met and married in Canada. For all you Stooges buffs, Walt was born just after the release of Sappy Bull Fighters and before Snow White and the Three Stooges. Curly had been dead eight years, Shemp five.
Nadia says Walt was a tough little boy. When he was five—or at about the time he began watching the Stooges—he cut his hand on broken glass. The gash required eight stitches. "Walt never cried," Nadia recalls. "The first thing he said when he came out of the emergency room was, 'Momma, look at the pretty thread I got in my hand.' He wasn't scared of pain or blood or nothing."
By his own account, Walt was a bit of a knucklehead as a kid. His Stoogeness didn't include leading friends around by the nose with a monkey wrench, but he did swat rocks at cars with a tennis racket, hammer the headlights out of his father's Plymouth and give the girl next door a Curly cut.
Nadia didn't exactly curtail her son's lively childhood. At the dinner table she would start food fights with Walt, Peter and their two older sisters, Mary and Irene. "I'd pelt them with radishes, and soon there'd be olives, tomatoes and beets flying everywhere," says Nadia. "We'd only stop when nothing was left on the table." Walt's trophies in the china cabinet still sport old vegetable and fruit juice stains.
Walt learned to skate at age eight and laced up his first pair of Bauers at 11. "I never pushed him to play hockey," says Nadia. "The only thing I ever pushed him to do was put out the garbage, and I still can't get him to do that."
Poddubny played a month of Junior A hockey at Brandon, Manitoba, but got homesick and left. He was 18. "Get a job," said Dad, who is a millwright.
And Walt did, briefly. In fact, in a 10-month period he got half a dozen or so. He was a roofer, a bouncer, a guard in a maximum security prison. He was even a surveyor for 15 minutes but quit because he "didn't like holding a pole with two burned-out hoseheads."
Hoseheads, Poddubny kindly reminds those who don't remember the cockamamy McKenzie Brothers from SCTV, are young Canadian males at their dumbest and lumpiest. Their conversations consist mainly of "take off, eh," and they seem to survive on a diet of beer, back bacon and donuts. "I've got a lot of friends who fall into the 'hoser' category," he says. "Hell, I could have been one myself if I hadn't gotten out of Thunder Bay. So, take off, eh."
Poddubny got out of Thunder Bay and back into hockey after deciding he didn't like regular work after all. "I really didn't think about not making the NHL," he says. "I figured I'd drive off that bridge when I got to it."
In 1979-80, Poddubny had 30 goals and 17 assists in 43 games with the Junior A Kingston (Ont.) Canadians but was such an unknown that he wasn't drafted until the fourth round—he was the 90th pick overall—by the Edmonton Oilers. He played most of the 1980-81 season with Wichita, Kans., of the Central Hockey League. "That was my Stooge year," he says. "I just ran around wreaking havoc." In 70 games he had 21 goals and 29 assists while amassing 207 penalty minutes. "In your first year, if you don't show everyone you'll answer the bell, they'll hack you to pieces," he says. "When I wasn't picking fights, I was joining in others just to gain respect. It wasn't until my second season that I realized I wasn't going to make the NHL on my fighting ability."
The Toronto Maple Leafs traded for him with 11 games remaining in the 1981-82 NHL season, and in 1982-83 he broke the Leafs' rookie goal-scoring record with 28. But eight games into the next season he broke his left ankle and missed 42 games. He later suffered a broken right ankle, a broken thumb, a broken rib, torn knee ligaments and an infected foot, and played less than half the schedule in both 1984-85 and 1985-86. His linemates in Toronto were a couple of Czechoslovakians, Miroslav Frycer and Peter Ihnacak. The trio weren't known for their scoring, but they led the league in misspellings.
The Toronto management wasn't exactly pleased two years ago when Poddubny took his contract negotiation to arbitration in a salary dispute. "They wouldn't have minded, except that I won," he says. "As Curly would say, 'I was a victim of soicumstance.' "
When Poddubny developed a foot infection in training camp before the 1985-86 season, the Leafs questioned his enthusiasm and shipped him to their American Hockey League gulag in St. Catharines, Ont., for rehabilitation. "Either you start working and try to get out of here," said Tammy, "or forget about hockey." Poddubny got the message and produced 28 goals and 27 assists in 37 games. He returned to Toronto, where he remained unhappy. "I nearly got an ulcer," he says. With actor John Candy, a long-suffering Leafs fan, he would brood over his troubles. They would trade Curly impersonations and watch Candy's Stooges tapes. "Walt and I agree that the magic of Stooge humor is its subtlety," says Candy. "Of course, the odd slap in the face or two fingers in the eyes didn't hurt."
Candy was Dr. Tongue in mock 3-D extravaganzas on SCTV's Monster Horror Chiller Theater. Poddubny tried to get DR. TONGUE put on his license plate, but someone else beat him to it. He did give the name to a small brass elephant he squeezes for good luck. "I liked Dr. Tongue in 3-D House of Wax and 3-D House of Pancakes," Poddubny says, "but I identified most with his 3-D House of Stewardesses. In that one, Dr. Tongue gives some stranded flight attendants a potion that turns them into slave chicks."
When Esposito became New York's general manager after the 1985-86 season, a top priority was to beef up his team's anemic attack. One of his first moves was to trade for Poddubny. But some Rangers thought Poddubny might be a dud. "When we got him, the question was not how he'd do as much as whether he'd even make the team," says Maloney.
But Esposito, who was traded from Chicago to Boston before becoming an NHL star, says, "Sometimes you've got to change teams before getting a chance to show what you can really do."
Poddubny was moved from left wing to center, a position he had not played since leaving Wichita. "I thought if Walt played in the middle, he could be more creative," says Espo. "I hoped he would be more productive offensively with a little more room to roam." In Poddubny's first 11 games he had six goals and 14 assists, and showed an array of behind-the-back and between-the-legs passes that most of his teammates would not even attempt. "Some guys are sluggers and muggers," says Maloney. "Walt is an artist."
Poddubny's panache has conquered the headhunters in Madison Square Garden's blue seats, a dim region high above the ice to which, it's rumored, Margaret Mead had planned to make her final expedition. "We've had our fill of lackadaisical players, figure-eighters whose quickest route is to the bench rather than the puck," says Ken Murrell, a blue-seater who until recently wrote, edited and published Tonite, an alternative program for his fellows in the cheap seats. "Poddubny is viewed as a hustler and a worker. He very rarely has an unproductive shift."
In a game early this season against the Hartford Whalers, Poddubny controlled the puck 10 feet in front of the Whalers' crease. But Hartford center Doug Jarvis grabbed Poddubny's free hand and jammed on the brakes. Poddubny spun around in his best Curly imitation. He shuffled his feet, he rolled his eyes, he did the entire Stooge routine except for the nyuk, nyuk, nyuk. The referee did everything but applaud. He slapped Jarvis with a two-minute penalty for holding.
"In Stooge terms, Walt has a Larry attitude about his play," says Candy. "He'll get whomped into a corner and bounce right back."
But the hard-checking Philadelphia Flyers nonetheless stopped Poddubny in last season's playoffs. They shut him out—no goals, no assists—in six postseason games. "Playing Philadelphia is like taking on Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp all at once," says Poddubny. "The difference is that when the Flyers poke at you, it's for real."