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MIGHTY DUCKS / ’94-'95 PREVIEW : Prime Example : Ladouceur’s Hard Work Commands Respect From Teammates

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Around and around they go, performing hockey’s version of wind sprints as another practice draws to a close. A dozen young men in one group skate five swift laps around the ice while another dozen wait their turn.

Always near the front of his pack, Mighty Duck defenseman Randy Ladouceur leaves many others with younger, faster legs far behind.

No matter the drill, it’s always the same routine for Ladouceur, 34. He doesn’t know how to do things differently. He’s a model of consistency, a walking, talking how-to video for young players trying to make their mark in the NHL.

There’s no secret to it, Ladouceur insists. Every last bit of success he has had in a career that spans 823 NHL games over 12 seasons can be attributed to plain old hard work.

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At some point, it dawned on him that the way to staying productive was to simply outwork, outhustle everyone else.

It’s hardly a novel approach. But it has helped keep Ladouceur at the top of his game, one of the league’s steadiest, most dependable defensemen in the last 12 seasons. Now it also serves to reinforce his role as the undisputed leader, the captain of the Ducks.

“He’s a great leader, an experienced veteran,” center Bob Corkum said. “In my opinion, and I don’t want to put words in the coaches’ mouths, but he was our most outstanding defenseman last year. In my eyes, he’s the perfect example of a captain.”

Said defenseman Bobby Dollas: “They made a good choice for captain. He’s not flashy, just a stay-at-home, steady Eddie.”

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Asked what other qualities Ladouceur brings to the Ducks, goaltender Guy Hebert said, “Age.”

He paused, laughed and added: “No, no, no. I’m just kidding. He has a world of experience. He helped out a great deal last year because not a lot of guys had NHL experience. He gave us that guidance when we’d be up, 2-1, 3-2, going into the third period last year. ‘Laddy’ is a great choice for captain.”

Ladouceur has never been considered a star defenseman, probably because he has never been much of a scorer, never been a tough guy.

But he’s always been there for the Detroit Red Wings, Hartford Whalers and now the Ducks, defending the net and leading by example. If you don’t notice his play, it’s probably not your fault. He has been an invisible hero more often than not.

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When it seemed his career might wind to a close in Hartford, that he might go into coaching after another season or two, the Ducks selected him in the 1993-94 expansion draft.

The move rekindled Ladouceur’s spirit.

“I feel great out here,” he said days after signing a two-year contract extension that will pay him about $600,000 this season. “It’s been a great experience for me. It’s been a lot of fun. I was in Hartford seven years and I enjoyed it there. We owned a home there, so I was a little disappointed to leave.

"(Now) I couldn’t be happier. I got the chance to play a few more years for a great organization. They’ve treated us first class from the start. I’m really happy.”

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In his 12th NHL season, at 33, Ladouceur played a career-high 81 games with the expansion Ducks, scoring one goal with nine assists. He sure didn’t play like a man ready to step into a suit and direct the action from behind a bench.

“My personal goal was to play as long as I could,” he said. “As long as I stayed fairly healthy, as long as I was feeling good and having fun, I was going to continue to play.”

At one point in Hartford, Ladouceur seriously considered coaching, speaking at length with Brian Burke, former Whaler general manager and now NHL senior vice president and director of hockey operations.

It seemed like a natural route.

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“As it turned out, I got picked up in the expansion draft and Burke was out of Hartford (in the summer of 1993),” Ladouceur said.

Certainly Southern California sunshine and Disney’s millions could be reason enough to keep playing. But neither was in evidence inside the Ducks’ frigid practice rink in Anaheim recently.

The Ducks had just flown in that morning from an exhibition game in Denver and were trying to shake the weariness from their bones. The coaching staff wanted a solid 90-minute workout and Ladouceur was determined to make sure the players complied.

He whipped himself around the ice, hollering encouragement, needling when appropriate and generally providing the push his teammates needed.

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Later, someone asked where his constant devotion to hard work comes from.

“To a certain extent it comes with maturity,” Ladouceur said. “Everybody (in the NHL), when they played in the minors or in juniors, was a star. There came a point in my career where I realized I’m by far not the best guy out there.

“I realized I could work harder.

“If you were around me when I signed in 1979 and said I’d still be playing, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”

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He played with Reggie Leach in Detroit, and Reggie’s son, Jamie, in Hartford.

He also played against Duck Coach Ron Wilson.

“I played against him?” Wilson cracked. “Did I? I’m not that old. I’ve always looked up to Randy Ladouceur.”

At 39, Wilson is only five years older than Ladouceur.

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“He might be as old as the coaches, I don’t know,” Corkum said, breaking into a smile. “You tend to listen to a veteran like Randy. He tells you things, not to knock you, but to help you better yourself.”

Said Hebert: “Down deep, we all know if we worked as hard as he does then maybe we’d play 13 years in this league.”

Ladouceur’s roots are humble, shared by so many NHL players, including the game’s greatest names.

Ladouceur’s road to the NHL cut through the snowy Ontario, Canada, countryside, bouncing along with other youngsters with cold noses in a school bus rented by his father, Roger.

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“My dad (who died in 1991) was probably my biggest influence as far as instilling work ethic,” Ladouceur said. “He gave me the opportunity to play. He used to tote our team around to play in tournaments. He exposed me to hockey.

“He would rent an old, rickety school bus. We’d throw all our gear in the back and our traveling team would play in all the small towns (in Ontario). It’s the same story for three-quarters of the guys in here.”

Ladouceur has been able to transform that spark of passion into a lengthy career, distancing himself from so many others. He acknowledges his good fortunes and gives special thanks to John Barrett and Reed Larson for taking him under their wing when he was breaking in with Detroit in the early 1980s.

“They went out of their way to help me,” Ladouceur said. “It made a world of difference, whether it was a ride to the rink or whatever. . . . the little things that made the transition that much easier.”

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Years passed and Ladouceur began to help younger players.

In Hartford, they called him ‘Papa Bear’ and named him captain early in the 1991-92 season.

“I was going up the road on my way home one day,” former Hartford Coach Jim Roberts once said. “I saw Laddy with one of the kids helping him get a car.”

When he came to the Ducks, he knew the team needed to unify quickly if it was to amount to anything. The only player he knew was forward Terry Yake, a teammate in Hartford.

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“First of all, everybody was forced into the same situation,” Ladouceur said. “Nobody knew anybody. There were no cliques or anything. We all came together for support. Somebody found a good furniture store. That was a big deal. Everyone was learning things together.”

On the ice, the Ducks looked to Ladouceur and Troy Loney for support and leadership. Loney, the 1993-94 captain, was traded to the New York Islanders this summer and Ladouceur is now the unquestioned leader.

“You always hear his voice,” Hebert said. “He’s always talking, settling you down. He was the key to the seasons some of the younger players had.

“Laddy was the key to all that.”

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