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The Last Laugh With the retooled Mighty Ducks going for the Cup, the joke--finally--is no longer on them

May 26, 2003
May 26, 2003

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May 26, 2003

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The Last Laugh With the retooled Mighty Ducks going for the Cup, the joke--finally--is no longer on them

The magical Mighty Ducks of Anaheim are in the Stanley Cup finals,
a unique opportunity to etch their names on the most recognizable
trophy in sports, to win swell rings and to put a stop to the
tiresome Daffy Duck videos that are shown in the 29 NHL arenas
they visit. "You know, the cartoon about duck season with [Elmer
Fudd as] the hunter," says Anaheim center Steve Rucchin, who has
been a Duck since 1994-95. "Maybe now they'll find something
different." ¶ The Mighty Ducks, whose goofy name was born of a
Disney movie and who are owned by the conglomerate, beg for
derision. After all, this is a franchise with a statue of
its mascot, Wild Wing, at an entrance to Arrowhead Pond. Not
exactly the bronze of Wayne Gretzky that stands outside Skyreach
Centre in Edmonton, is it? Still, rampaging through three playoff
rounds in only 14 games in the tough Western Conference
whitewashes a decade of unforgivable kitsch and indifferent
hockey. The gags are over, meaning from now on nobody dares
suggest that a Duck goalie named J.S. (Jiggy) Giguere did the
ornithologically impossible by putting up goose eggs in a playoff
shutout streak of 217 minutes and 54 seconds; that Jiggy, Stumpy
(19-year wing Steve Thomas) and Cheesy (rookie wing Stanislav
Chistov) are Snow White's backup dwarfs; and that the Ducks are
all they're quacked up to be. As Rucchin said last Friday in his
best Elmer Fudd impersonation, after Anaheim had finished its
sweep of the Minnesota Wild with a 2-1 victory, "No more
wabbits."

This is an article from the May 26, 2003 issue Original Layout

The Mighty Ducks are a lesson in the cathartic effects of
change--not just change in the roster (half of the 20 players who
dressed in that Western Conference finale were not with Anaheim
last season) but also change in the team's culture. New general
manager Bryan Murray, with help from cocksure rookie coach Mike
Babcock, has reshaped an organization in one season, making the
Ducks tough to play against with their sticky defensive style
and--as important--making them fun to play for. "You'd have
thought the Disney idea was to entertain people, to treat people
right," says Murray, 60. "But there wasn't a lot of joy here."

Focused on gimmicks and star left wing Paul Kariya, the Magic
Kingdom was a Potemkin village, a smiley-face facade for a grim
franchise. Murray, who joined Anaheim as coach in 2001-02 and
then became general manager after Pierre Gauthier was fired from
that job in April '02, was stunned in his first season when he
walked into the Ducks' offices, which are diagonally across from
the dressing room. When Murray strolled by, front-office
employees would avert their eyes. "I'd say, 'Good morning,'
and...nothing," Murray says. "I'd tell them it was O.K.--they
were allowed to talk to me. But the philosophy [of Gauthier] was
that the players had their place, the staff had theirs, and
there should be no interaction."

This was not a button-down approach, it was a button-your-lip
one. "I had a friend in the front office in sales," says left
wing Mike Leclerc, who has played four full seasons in Anaheim.
"Three years ago I was injured and was watching a game in the
arena, and this guy was sitting with one of his friends, so I sat
with them. The next day, this guy got called into the office and
reamed for talking to me. How could you have people selling me
when they couldn't even talk to me?"

Murray, who stepped down as coach after becoming the G.M.,
instituted an open-mouth policy. He also designated a video
coordinator. For a team owned by one of the world's most storied
communications companies, the Ducks astonishingly did not have
the equipment to digitally break down game tapes. When Murray and
his staff wanted to go over video, they used an old-fashioned VCR
and got help from a staffer on the Anaheim Angels, who were also
owned by Disney until last week. "This was like the Dark Ages of
hockey," Murray says.

But some light could be seen through the cracks. In 2001-02
Giguere refined his square-to-the-shot technique and had a .920
save percentage, presaging this spring's monster playoff
performance: a .960 save percentage and a 1.22 goals-against
average. There was a nucleus of rugged, shutdown defensemen that
included Keith Carney, Ruslan Salei and the indefatigable Kariya.
Murray needed complementary scoring help for Kariya as well as a
deft passer who could make the NHL's most feeble power play more
than a waste of two minutes. The G.M. also had to clear out
unhappy players such as defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky, the Jeff
George of power-play quarterbacks, and underachieving winger Jeff
Friesen. All within a budget, of course.

The first steps toward Anaheim's 26-point regular-season
improvement in 2002-03 came last July, when Murray began
shuffling his roster like a three-card-monte dealer. On July 1 he
signed free-agent center Adam Oates, a soon-to-be-40-year-old
passing wizard who could get Kariya the puck and also run the
power play from the left half-boards. Six days later Murray
traded Tverdovsky and Friesen to the New Jersey Devils for Petr
Sykora, a right wing who would lead the Ducks with 34 goals
during the regular season. The bookend snapshots of the sweep
over the Wild were Sykora's goal in the 1-0 double overtime win
in Game 1 and Oates's two goals in Game 4, both scored with the
man advantage.

Murray had a knack for identifying players who could make a
difference, and Disney allowed the payroll to creep from $36
million to $41 million. The initial indication that Anaheim
considered itself more than playoff ballast came at the All-Star
break, when Murray acquired Sandis Ozolinsh, an exquisitely
skilled but flighty and expensive ($5.5 million per season)
defenseman, from the Florida Panthers. At the March trade
deadline Murray plucked Thomas, 39, from the Chicago Blackhawks
and rescued center Rob Niedermayer from the Calgary Flames.
Despite good speed and strength, the 6'2", 205-pound Niedermayer,
28, had devolved into the most disappointing player in hockey,
scoring 26 goals for Florida in 1995-96, when the Panthers made
the Cup finals, but never approaching that number again. "You
give Rob a role of importance and not expect a big-time scorer,
he'll make you happy every night," Murray says of one of his
favorite players with the Panthers, for whom he was G.M. from
1994-95 through 2000-01.

Led by the 40-year-old Babcock, the Mighty Ducks finally have
forged an identity beyond the cartoonish logo--one of a smart,
swift team that is superb on the counterattack. Babcock has given
them an identity, not a personality. Anaheim is a flat-line team
emotionally, the antithesis of its caffeinated coach, who woofed
at the Minnesota bench in Game 3 after Wild enforcer Matt Johnson
got tangled with Giguere in the third period. Babcock apologized
the next day with the same brio, saying, "The first thing that
happened when I woke up at 6:30 in the morning, my kids were in
my bed. They told me that I had inappropriate behavior and
they've got to go to Catholic school and answer for their dad
acting his shoe size instead of his age. I'm very sorry about
that. That won't happen again."

The response was disarming, and far more politic than the ones he
gave to Murray during a job interview in the late 1990s, when
Florida was looking for a minor league coach. After the interview
Murray told his nephew Tim, the Ducks' director of player
personnel who was then Florida's amateur scouting director
championing Babcock, "I'm not going to hire that arrogant
bastard."

"Overbearing? Yes," Leclerc says of Babcock, who joined the
Anaheim organization in 2000 as coach of its minor league
affiliate in Cincinnati. "Right from his first training camp with
us he had this incredible energy. It took a while to get used to.
He came on strong."

Babcock, who grew close to Murray in training camp before the
2001-02 season, litters his conversations with bromides about
"concentrating on the process and not the prize" and "living in
the present," coachspeak that plays well in the cloistered
dressing room. The Ducks have embraced it, most notably Kariya, a
former 50-goal scorer. In a perfect NHL, in which skilled players
would be not be impeded by obstruction, and the league's
television ratings would dwarf bowling's, the dynamic Kariya
would score a passel of goals every year. This season, in the
Dead Puck era on the counterpunching Ducks, he produced 25,
played consistent two-way hockey and provided strong leadership.

The most rewarding season of his career also has been his most
trying. On Dec. 27 he was taking a nap at his family home in
North Vancouver--the Ducks were in town to play the Canucks--when
he awoke to sounds of family members crying. His father, T.K.,
had left a yoga class and collapsed in the parking lot. He was
dead at 60. Kariya played against the Canucks the next night,
just as he thought his father would have wanted. "When I think of
my dad," Kariya said before Game 4 against Minnesota, "I don't
think of him watching from the stands. It wasn't about what I did
on the ice, it was what we did together off it. The times we'd go
to a driving range together, things like that. They're just as
important, just as memorable."

The Mighty Ducks are poised for something memorable now,
something Thomas said first seemed possible after the
triple-overtime playoff opener in Detroit on April 10, in which
Giguere made 63 saves and allowed them to steal a win. They have
played textbook hockey in 13 of their 14 postseason games,
allowing one goal on 123 shots in their series against the Wild.
They also won 61% of the face-offs.

In these quixotic playoffs the Mighty Ducks symbolize faith and
renewal. If nothing else, they have proven the widespread notion
that Detroit, Colorado and Dallas are the only Western Conference
heavyweights to be, pardon the expression, a canard.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO TOGETHERNESS Thanks to defensive help from Niedermayer (far left), Carney (3) and Salei, Giguere tamed the Wild.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO GOOD MOVES The additions of Babcock (inset) and Oates (right) have revived the Ducks.COLOR PHOTO: RIC FRANCIS/AP (INSET) [See caption above]
The Mighty Ducks have forged an IDENTITY BEYOND THE CARTOONISH
LOGO, one of a smart, swift, counterattacking team.