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THE NHL : Epilogue :...

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They overcame their name.

The Mighty Ducks.

Even club President Tony Tavares was once “adamantly opposed to it.” But the players’ performances helped stop the jokes.

“That came quick, as soon as we made our first swing through the teams,” captain Troy Loney said. “After that, there wasn’t too much joking. You didn’t hear the Duck quacks.”

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They overcame having seven months to go from not having uniforms, players, season-ticket holders, radio and TV deals--or even pucks--to starting their first NHL season.

They overcame a roster that was ranked last in the NHL in talent.

And they overcame having to appear in a parade of Disney parades, command performances that gave NHL veterans a new perspective on their importance in the world.

“I’m standing below Chip and I was kind of waving,” right wing Todd Ewen remembered. “And then I realized the kids were waving at Chip--and Chip’s a small-time character in the Disney portfolio.”

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But at the end of its first season, the new Anaheim NHL team could look back on these accomplishments:

--It finished with a 33-46-5 record, contended for the playoffs and, along with the Florida Panthers, set an expansion record for victories. Other highlights included a 19-20-3 road record and a 10-4-1 record in Canada.

--It led the NHL in merchandise sales with its Duck-and-crossbones logo. At the team’s two local stores alone, the Ducks sold 12,000 jerseys at $75-$180 apiece and 50,000 $10 plastic duck calls.

--It sold out 27 of 41 home games, including the last 25, and filled The Pond of Anaheim to 98.9% of its season capacity. Scoff at the pregame entertainment all you will, the stands were full.

“You can take exception to some of the things we do--and I certainly do--but the vast majority of the crowd is entertained,” Tavares said. “I’m not going to get hung up on a purist view that we shouldn’t be doing any of this. . . . The 33 victories speak to what we do on the ice.”

Why did the Ducks’ first season go so well that their chief disappointment was not making the playoffs?

It had to do with smart hires, from the top down to the players:

--Tavares, a driven, no-nonsense boss who speaks his mind--even if it means ticking off Wayne Gretzky.

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--General Manager Jack Ferreira, a respected veteran hockey executive with an extra needling motivation to prove the San Jose Sharks wrong for firing him in a front-office shake-up after their first season.

--Ron Wilson, a creative rookie coach who handled his team like a veteran and managed to get outstanding performances from 17 players.

Off the ice, the organization managed to strike a balance with the mammoth Walt Disney Co.--leaning on the entertainment conglomerate that owns the team for many of its non-hockey hires and taking advantage of its entertainment and marketing expertise, while maintaining enough separation to keep Mickey and Donald out of the building.

Disney Chairman Michael Eisner showed he knows enough to know what he doesn’t know. Although he’s intensely interested in the team and is lobbying the NHL to settle ties with a shootout, he didn’t make any trades or involve himself in day-to-day hockey operations.

After the first 20 games, the Ducks were 5-13-2. Then came a 4-0 trip against Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg.

“At that point I knew we’d be all right,” Wilson said. “But after every loss, I still worried that we might never win another game. I’d think, ‘It’s over. The bubble’s burst.’ ”

Starting with that trip, they went 28-32-3 the rest of the way. Here’s how it was done:

GOALTENDING

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Eight NHL teams finished with goals-against averages of less than 3.00 and save percentages of more than .900. The Ducks were one.

More than anything, this is why the Ducks and Panthers were better in their first years than other recent expansion teams. This time, the expansion guidelines allowed existing teams to protect only one goalie instead of two.

Florida got John Vanbiesbrouck, and the Ducks got two young, talented former backups, Guy Hebert and Ron Tugnutt. They were a tag team until Tugnutt was traded in February. Then Mikhail Shtalenkov, a Russian drafted last June, replaced Tugnutt.

Hebert finished with a 20-27-3 record and a 2.83 goals-against average.

COACHING

Wilson, a Vancouver assistant last season, had never been a head coach except for an interim stint in the minors. But Ferreira picked him, and Wilson, 38, proved to be a perfect fit, designing a defensive approach to keep the Ducks in games, managing to create a positive atmosphere in what has often been a dreary situation, and sustaining a balance between demanding intensity from his inexperienced players and putting debilitating pressure on them.

“I think he’s always had this team upbeat. He always had this team believing in themselves,” Ferreira said.

CRUCIAL PERFORMANCES

Bob Corkum had never scored more than six goals or had more than 10 points in an NHL season. He finished with 51 points, including 23 goals, despite sitting out the final eight games because of injury. . . . Terry Yake fell a goal short of matching his career high of 22, but he got the team’s first hat trick in the sixth game of the season, an upset of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. . . . Garry Valk was plucked from Vancouver in the waiver draft and became the Ducks’ third-leading scorer with 45 points. . . . Joe Sacco had a career-high 19 goals, Tim Sweeney a career-high 18.

INTANGIBLES

Working hard can be a cliche in hockey. A team wins and the players say, “We worked hard.” They lose and it’s, “We didn’t work hard enough.” But a team with as little skill as the Ducks had to finish its checks to equalize things.

“I think coming in, my concerns were just that we wouldn’t be competitive,” left wing Stu Grimson said. “You hear you’ll be blown out night after night. . . . But my fears and apprehensions were quashed the first week when I saw how hard-working this bunch was.”

Ferreira saw leadership--from Loney, the captain, and alternates Grimson, Ewen and Ladouceur--as one of the differences between the Ducks and his first-year San Jose team, dominated by youngsters.

“The one single thing that pleases me most is the way we competed all year,” Ferreira said. “It shows a lot about the character of the guys in the locker room.”

*

So, Year 1 is done. The Ducks could add a lot of talent next season by signing Paul Kariya and Valeri Karpov, two 1993 draft choices, and the No. 2 overall pick they will select in June.

“People say so many players perform above expectations the first year, then reality sets in,” Tavares said. “So many teams go through a sophomore jinx. That’s something we’re striving to avoid.”

A MIGHTY EFFORT

Here is how the Mighty Ducks stacked up against other recent first-year expansion teams:

* Florida Panthers (1993-94): 33-34-17

* Mighty Ducks (1993-94): 33-46-5

* Tampa Bay Lightning (1992-93): 23-54-7

* San Jose Sharks (1991-92): 17-58-5

* Ottawa Senators (1992-93): 10-70-4

TAKING A BITE

Duck General Manager Jack Ferreira had something to prove after being fired as San Jose’s general manager in a front-office power play in 1992.

The Ducks’ 33 victories reaffirmed his ability, but he got no measure of revenge. The Ducks were 0-6 against the Sharks, and their 6-0 loss March 6 all but killed their playoff hopes.

So will Ferreira be pulling for the Sharks in the playoffs?

“There are enough players still there that I certainly wish them well, but players only,” Ferreira said.

TOON IN

One of the best things about the Ducks was the animated opening of games on television, with music from Wagner (and “Apocalypse Now”) and a squadron assault on a beleaguered opposing goaltender. Crank up the volume. And don’t forget the Tinkerbell touch after goals.

DUCK TALK

Troy Loney, after a 4-0 loss to New Jersey on Oct. 20:

“We can’t rest on our laurels. We don’t have any.”

Coach Ron Wilson, after completing a 4-0 trip against Vancouver, Edmonton Calgary and Winnipeg:

“Break up the Mighty Ducks!”


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