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Attitude Is Tugnutt’s Saving Grace

There is a scene in “The Mighty Ducks"--the movie that inspired the T-shirts, the baseball caps, the duck whistles and, oh, yes, the professional hockey franchise--where the team’s flinching goaltender is tied to his net during practice and pummeled by a rainstorm of flying pucks, pounded at him, firing-squad style, by a relentless group of teammates.

Ron Tugnutt has been that kid, and then some.

“I’ve faced more rubber than the average tire salesman,” Tugnutt is fond of saying, because it only hurts when he doesn’t laugh.

As goaltender for the hapless Quebec Nordiques in 1990-91, Tugnutt faced 2,063 shots in 56 games, an average of 37 shots per night, which was not only the NHL high that season but also very likely a human-rights violation.

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On the evening of March 21, 1991, inside the enemy territory of Boston Garden, Tugnutt stood in against an ungodly 73 Bruin shots, a post-World War II record, and turned back 70 of them, another post-war record.

Seventy-three shots. With no relief, no substitution, no respite from opening faceoff to the buzzer that ended a 3-3 overtime tie.

Ducks Coach Ron Wilson watched that game on TV and shakes his head when talking about it, half in admiration, half in sympathy.

“An incredible display,” he says. “He was unbelievable. In a five-minute overtime, he faced, like, 15 shots. It was like his team wanted to see how many shots they could get on him.”

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Peter Douris, a Duck winger who played for Boston that night, has told Tugnutt that the Bruins sat in their dressing room between periods, looked at one another and broke into tearful fits of laughter.

“They were saying things like, ‘Just a matter of time before we break him down,’ ” Tugnutt says. “‘No way he can keep that pace up.”’

Tugnutt did, although to this day, isn’t entirely certain how.

“There were 20 saves I didn’t even see,” he says. “Saves where I was just at the right place at the right time.

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“I never got the chance to let up, never got the chance to think about anything else. I never had time to think, ‘Are they really going to take 65 shots or what?’ They just kept coming and coming.”

And Tugnutt kept stopping them and stopping them. More than two years later, he still believes he won that game. “One goal bounced in off one of our players,” he says. “A bad break.” And early in overtime, Quebec “had a total open net. We could’ve easily won it there. But (Bruin goalie) Reggie Lemelin stuck out that big, giant glove of his--or whatever you want to it--and got a piece of it.”

Disgust creeps into Tugnutt’s voice at the recollection.

“A wide-open net.”

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Tugnutt remembers that night as “a circus” and “an embarrassment to our coach. He couldn’t believe our players could play so badly, could let them take 73 shots.”

He also remembers it as the greatest night of his career.

When’s the last time a Quebec Nordique received a standing ovation in Boston Garden? Tugnutt got one after going 70 for 73. He also received handshakes from every member of the Bruins. They had taken every kind of shot imaginable at him--probably invented a few, too--and came away no better than a draw. At least it had to be more satisfying than Pernell Whitaker’s. NHL games, to the best of our knowledge, are decided on the ice, not hours earlier in a smoke-filled room.

“It was a great experience, believe it or not,” Tugnutt says. “I faced so many shots right away, I was in my concentration ‘groove’ from start to finish . . . I felt unbeatable at the time.”

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The sensation would be fleeting, beatable being the common condition in Quebec then. Tugnutt might have been the best goaltender in the league in 1990-91; only Chicago’s Ed Belfour had more saves--32 more--and Belfour appeared in 18 more games. Yet Tugnutt had only a 12-29-10 record to show for it, toiling for the Zamboni sludge of the NHL, the 16-50-14 Nordiques.

Tugnutt got lost in the shuffle, then buried altogether when Quebec made a coaching change in the middle of the 1991-92 season. Pierre Page came in and promptly told Tugnutt that “he didn’t want me to be his No. 1 and that I couldn’t be his No. 1.” Page benched Tugnutt, then shipped him to Edmonton, where Tugnutt spent the last 1 1/2 seasons backing up Bill Ranford.

Now he is a Duck, being the sixth and final goaltender chosen in the June expansion draft. Thanks for the memories, Quebec. Years of stockpiling No. 1 draft choices have turned the Nordiques into Stanley Cup contenders while Tugnutt is stranded in Anaheim, helping defend the nets for another potential 50-game loser.

Yet Tugnutt maintains the stiff upper lip and insists “things definitely turned out for the better for me. I experienced my first playoff (with Edmonton) before all of them did in Quebec, and now I’m in a place where I’m really happy.

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“I’m playing for a great organization here. A lot of guys in Quebec might even be a little envious of me.”

Tugnutt thinks that one over for a second.

“Then again, maybe not.”

Get him going on the Ducks’ prospects for 1993-94 and Tugnutt starts to sound as if he’s lost a lug nut.

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“With the new setup for the playoffs this year,” he says, “I feel we might be able to make the playoffs . . . We’d like to be the first first-year team to accomplish a goal like that.”

Supply your own taken-one-too-many-pucks-to-the-head joke here.

“Why not?” Tugnutt presses onward, pushing the envelope. “All we’ve got to do is finish eighth (in the 12-team Western Conference). That should be our goal, eighth place. If we have the kind of year we’re capable of having, we’re going to be right around there.

“I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t set your goals high. If you set out just to survive the year, that’s what you’re going to get.”

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And Ron Tugnutt’s role on this voyage through fantasyland?

“My role,” he says with a wink, “is to stop 70 a night.”

Tugnutt laughs as he speaks, but he needs to be careful around here. Come November and December, the Ducks might come to Tugnutt and take him up on the offer.


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