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SAVING THE NHL SEASON : MIGHTY DUCKS : Players Return and Bring Along Much Optimism

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With each pass, shot and save during an informal workout Wednesday, the Mighty Ducks’ thoughts finally turned away from labor issues and returned to the game.

Sixteen players spent an hour playing what amounted to pickup hockey at Glacial Garden Ice Arena in Anaheim, knowing for the first time since the NHL lockout began Oct. 1 what the immediate future held.

They will skate informally again today, travel to Lake Arrowhead on Friday, then begin a six-day training camp. They expect to play their first game of the season the next Friday.

“It was a relatively boring 12 weeks at home,” said goaltender Guy Hebert, who spent most of the lockout at his parents’ home in Troy, N.Y. “The guys are so excited. I think it’s going to be a great season for people to watch.”

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Said right wing Joe Sacco: “It’s nice to be skating again, knowing there’s going to be a season ahead of us.”

A few blocks away, at The Pond of Anaheim, team officials were pleased to see the end of the 103-day labor dispute and eager to see the games resume.

“You always second-guess yourself,” Duck President Tony Tavares said. “It’s the best deal both sides could make. It’s not ideal for the players, and it’s not ideal for management. Am I satisfied? Absolutely.”

Coach Ron Wilson, who satisfied his competitive needs by watching daughters Kristen and Lauren play basketball at Villa Park High, finally can turn his attention to juggling the offensive abilities of rookie Paul Kariya and a commitment to defensive hockey.

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“If I’ve learned anything from watching football on TV, it’s that you have to have a sound defense,” Wilson said. “It seems like there are a lot of built-in excuses, but we’re not going to fall back on them.”

He said a scrimmage between the Ducks and Kings would do more harm than good. “I think we would be sharpening the wrong kinds of skills,” Wilson joked, imagining a fight-filled debacle.

General Manager Jack Ferreira said he wouldn’t hesitate to call up players from San Diego of the International Hockey League to replace anyone who suffers an injury or fails to perform up to expectations.

However, Ferreira said the players who made the opening-night roster will be the only ones invited to training camp.

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“It won’t do us any good to bring in 30 guys for training camp when Ron can only play 20,” he said. “We’ve got to go with the guys who have the most experience. When the season starts, you’re only as good as your last game.”

Wilson’s first task when camp opens Saturday is to sharpen his goalies’ skills, knowing it’s easier to play defensively, then fine-tune the offense after a few games.

“Our number one focus right off the bat is to get the goalies sharp again,” Wilson said. “They’re the ones who lose the most (during a layoff). We’ll concentrate on our goaltending and what we do in our own end.”

Wilson looked forward to finally seeing Kariya, expected to challenge for rookie of the year, in regular-season competition. Kariya was flying to Orange County from his home in North Vancouver, Canada, Wednesday.

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“The teams that get off to good starts after 15 games could almost say they’ve made the playoffs,” Wilson said. “Conversely, the teams that have bad starts can really never catch up.

“Maybe the games will be sloppy, but we’re going to make up for it with intensity. The hitting and physical confrontations are going to be at an all-time high.”

Players and management were in agreement on that issue. “What we may lack in game shape we’ll make up in intensity,” captain Randy Ladouceur said.

“Play will suffer for a little while. We’ve been skating as much as anybody, but it’s still going to be a tough training camp for some guys.”

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Said enforcer Todd Ewen: “There are going to be a lot of mistakes because there hasn’t been any continuity. For the fans, that should mean more exciting hockey--more mistakes mean more turnovers, and more turnovers mean more scoring chances. It should make for more exciting games.

“Or, it could be just completely awful.”


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