'95-'96 Season Preview : Growing Pains : The Mighty Ducks begin their third season looking to balance big business with winning hockey. They're hoping success can be found with a keen eye on the bottom line.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Ferreira stepped toward the jury box in an Orange County courtroom this summer, half worried he was about to be chosen to serve on a lengthy criminal trial, half fascinated by the strategies of the attorneys.

When his turn came, Ferreira gave his name and occupation--general manager of the Mighty Ducks. But no courtroom drama could have prepared him for the first words of defense attorney Jon Alexander:

"I can't believe you didn't sign Joel Otto."

Not much later, Alexander--a Duck fan--struck Ferreira from the jury on a preemptive challenge, sending the amused hockey executive back to his office to keep working toward the Ducks' third season.

Year 1 was all novelty, Year 2 was marred by a labor dispute, but in Year 3, expectations are beginning to take hold.

"It's not, 'What are your colors?' anymore," Ferreira said.

The Mighty Ducks are growing up. Once mostly a marketing phenomenon, they are now being scrutinized in more traditional ways.

So much of what was predicted--even feared--about the Ducks hasn't come true. They have yet to ruin hockey, as some Canadian pundits screamed they would. (In fact, it is the expansion team in Canada's capital, the Ottawa Senators, that has proved an embarrassment to the game.) Mickey Mouse isn't allowed on the premises of Duck games, nor is Goofy. Michael Eisner hasn't single-handedly pushed through a shootout rule to decide ties, forced a trade, fired his GM or demanded his coach stand in front of the bench to be more visible for the cameras.

What is emerging is a hockey team with a corporate face--businesslike and bottom-line oriented. Anyone who thought a Walt Disney Co.-owned NHL franchise would lavish Lion King loot on free agents doesn't know Disney and hasn't paid attention to the Ducks, who in many ways rank among the NHL's most conservative teams.

They operate on tight budgets, elaborate five-year plans, profit projections and an almost unbending will to build the team slowly with high draft picks, careful trades and, for the most part, lower-salaried players.

"I never had a thought they'd be indiscriminate," said Boston Bruins' president and general manager Harry Sinden, one of the NHL's old-guard conservatives. "I know Disney and I know Mr. Eisner and I was confident they'd handle it just the way they have: Sensibly."

"Conservative is one word," said player agent Jeff Solomon, who represents some of the Ducks. "They're conservative as an organization, but that's not just hockey, that's the whole company. It's a Fortune 500 company. They're cautious and intelligent about the decisions they make, and they utilize the rules that have been negotiated to their benefit. From a business standpoint, no one can blame you for that."

Conservative, cautious . . . it's not what some NHL owners thought they were getting.

"A lot of people in the league are afraid of corporate ownership because they think they'll be big spenders," said Pierre Gauthier, Ducks' assistant general manager. "If we decided we were going to buy every free agent in the league, who's going to stop us? But it turns out that in most cases with corporate ownership, you're talking about a publicly traded company, and shareholders expect profits. Disney is not going to own a hockey team if it's a losing proposition."

Or in the words of Coach Ron Wilson, "This isn't a toy for Disney or Michael Eisner, where you take all the money you make and spend it. . . . I don't think Disneyland is a benevolent public trust and not in it for profit, either."

With The Pond of Anaheim filled to its brim most of the first two seasons and a steady crowd of 17,174 willing to pay to see an expansion team in Disney trappings, it begs the question: What motivation is there for the Ducks to dip into their millions of dollars of profits and buy a winner?

Tony Tavares, president of Disney Sports Enterprises, insists the team will spend--when the time is right. Ferreira says he has "no qualms" that that's true and that the Ducks already proved it when they signed left wing Paul Kariya to a three-year $6.5-million contract last year--a deal so rich it upset most of the Ducks' conservative allies in the NHL. "What have we ever done or not done that shows we're not committed to winning?" Ferreira said.

Still, the Ducks are enjoying a grace period of uncertain duration--one that was probably shortened both times the team raised ticket prices.

"As long as you're competitive, and as long as they believe you have a commitment, that's really the key issue," Tavares said.

"But if the fans think you're selling them out, if they think you have taken on a position where you don't care about the competitiveness of the team, then I think fan support wanes very, very rapidly."

The irony about criticism of the Ducks' rather tightfisted approach is that spending lots of money has never translated to winning with any reliability. There have been plenty of examples in every sport, though you don't have to look further than the Kings, who have missed the playoffs two years in a row with one of the NHL's highest payrolls.

It hasn't yet worked for the St. Louis Blues, either, though it did work for the New York Rangers, whose corporate ownership backed General Manager Neil Smith on a $4 million boost in player salaries that helped bring the Rangers the Stanley Cup in 1994.

"If the right situation comes up, we'll take a step up," Ferreira said. "The right situation hasn't occurred."

The Ducks' methods are regarded by many as the prudent way--even by the agents who do battle with them on contracts.

"It's a business, and they're running it that way," said Don Baizley, who represents Kariya. "They're not running it with their hearts, they're running it with their heads. They're being fiscally responsible. They're not rolling the dice to produce a quick winner.

"The process will be slow, but in the short run it's clearly cheaper," Baizley added. "You're signing, for the most part, unproven talent, and it's cheaper. You build a more solid foundation that way, because when you get there it will endure. You'll have a number of players coming rather than going out and signing free agents and using up draft picks [as compensation]."

The Ducks argue that in many cases they can't go after high-priced players without sacrificing their future.

To trade for such a player as, say, Luc Robitaille, who they made a futile attempt to acquire this summer, the Ducks would have to give up some of their few assets--their star, Kariya, or promising defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky, rookie Chad Kilger or future first-round picks. The salary, Ferreira says, isn't the problem.

To sign an unrestricted free agent--such as Otto was before leaving Calgary for Philadelphia--they need not only money, but interest from the player. And premier players approaching the end of their careers--NHL players most often become free agents at the ripe age of 32--want to play for contenders.

Signing restricted free agents--such as Winnipeg's Keith Tkachuk--is difficult and expensive under the NHL's free agency system, the most prohibitive in pro sports. Clubs retain the right to match any offer to a restricted free agent--and usually do--but if they don't, the clubs are entitled to compensation from the team that signs a player. For example, if a team signs a player to a contract worth $2 million a year, it owes the player's former club its next three first-round picks.

"We did a lot of research to make sure we weren't going to copy mistakes that were made in the past," Tavares said. "I still look back at teams that got into situations where they started trading No. 1 draft picks, where they started trading very young talented players. All of a sudden it seems like you're in a vicious circle, you never advance. You just kind of spin your wheels. We promised ourselves we wouldn't do that."

The Ducks say they are sticking to their game plan--a constantly revised five-year plan that Tavares says "dovetails" with the financial plan, projecting which players will still be with the team and what their salaries will be.

By their original schedule, this is the first season the Ducks hoped to make the playoffs--though it got tougher when Colorado joined the Western Conference. Still, it's a little soon to consider the Ducks failures if they don't make it this year--of the recent expansion teams, only the San Jose Sharks have reached the postseason in their third season.

The Stanley Cup? "The Islanders won in eight years and Philadelphia in seven," Ferreira said. "But there weren't as many teams in the league then. It's hard to talk about the Stanley Cup. Only one team wins it."

The Islanders won in 1980 because they drafted well and took their lumps early. Denis Potvin was their No. 1 pick in '73, Bryan Trottier was their second-round pick in '74, and both were on the team that won the Cup in '80.

"I don't think there's an absolute way to do it," said Bill Torrey, who built the Islanders and is attempting a reprise as president of the Florida Panthers. In '72, with the draft age at 20, Torrey went with youngsters right away. "I knew that for the next four or five years we didn't have much chance of having any success, so we went on what I told the owners was a five-year plan. I let eight or nine veteran expansion players go right away and replaced them with the kids we drafted in our first entry draft. We basically built the team through the draft."

This time, with the draft eligibility age at 18, Torrey sent more draft picks back to junior hockey at first and stuck with the veterans, coming within a point of making the playoffs in each of the team's first two seasons.

The Ducks went to youth more quickly, making their transition last season. The Ducks led the NHL in games played by rookies with 238 last season, while the Panthers were last, with nine. What that means is that while the Panthers were winning a few more games with aging fringe players, the Ducks were introducing Kariya and Tverdovsky to the NHL at the ages of 20 and 18.

Late in the season, Ferreira moved on a series of deals for young prospects, and by sacrificing a few points in a shortened season, the Ducks have a younger team--one that should be at its peak when many of the expansion draft players are long done.

The Panthers will start making that transition this year, and might put three to five rookies in the lineup, led by defenseman Ed Jovanovski, last year's No. 1 pick, and Radek Dvorak, a first-rounder this year. The Ducks add only one--Kilger--their third top-four draft pick in three years.

"I think we're on track," Ferreira said. "Sometimes you move a little quicker and other times you hit a plateau and stay there for a while. We've changed the team around a lot. We're more of a skating team now, a lot more mobile, we've shown much more skill in the preseason. More guys can score. Hopefully we'll be harder to play against now that we're not a one-line or one-star team. We still have a lot of room to grow, but we've got to show improvement."

Improvement on the ice is one goal, but people wonder: Are the Ducks being driven to keep improving their profit margin too, after making a reported $9 million in their first year alone?

"I don't think that in sports anybody can expect to grow your profits each and every year, that's highly unrealistic," Tavares said. "In a business that's a goal you typically have. In sports, it doesn't happen that way. It becomes somewhat cyclical. As we grow into a more mature organization, the sizzle and attention we got early on will wane a bit. We will have to perform on the ice at a higher level."

The time is coming when the Ducks will have to earn their sellouts the old-fashioned way, by winning.

In the words of Torrey--whose team also raised ticket prices this season--"It's like when you used to get a steak for five bucks. If it was a little tough, you'd probably eat it. Today, if you pay 25 bucks and it's tough, you're going to send it back to the kitchen."

The appeal of promise lasts only so long--as does the appeal of some of the Ducks' between-period entertainment. During an exhibition against Boston at The Pond in September, Sinden, the Bruins' traditionalist boss, watched as an inflatable boxing ring was pushed onto the ice and two combatants stepped onto pedestals to do battle with pugil sticks.

"We could do that . . ," Sinden said, drawing out his words for effect, "if we had the best team of all time on the ice. Otherwise, they'd choke me first and then they'd get this thing off the ice."

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Migrating Ducks

An expansion team's opening-night roster always ranks as a difficult trivia question. Perhaps that's because it changes so quickly. The Mighty Ducks are no exception. Here's a closer look at where the Ducks who suited up for the franchise's first game on Oct. 8, 1993, are now.

Guy Hebert: Starting goaltender for 1995-96.

Ron Tugnutt: Part-time starter in goal. Traded to Montreal for Stephan Lebeau Feb. 20, 1994.

Bobby Dollas: Key defenseman for '95-96.

Mark Ferner: Traded to Detroit with Stu Grimson for Mike Sillinger and Jason York April 4, 1995.

David Williams: Not re-signed.

Sean Hill: Traded to Ottawa for a draft pick.

Alexei Kasatonov: Traded to St. Louis for Maxim Bets and a draft pick.

Tim Sweeney: Fourth-leading scorer in '93-94. Released April 9, 1995.

Joe Sacco: Key right wing for '95-96.

Peter Douris: Reliable right wing for '95-96.

Steven King: Underwent two shoulder surgeries since February, 1994.

Garry Valk: Needs to rebound from disappointing '95 season.

Anatoli Semenov: Traded to Philadelphia for Milos Holan March 8, 1995.

Bob Corkum: One of the key leaders for '95-96.

Patrik Carnback: Improved left wing for '95-96.

Shaun Van Allen: Dependable center for '95-96.

Bill Houlder: Traded to St. Louis for Jason Marshall Aug. 29, 1994.

Troy Loney: First year's captain traded to New York Islanders for Tom Kurvers June 29, 1994.

Terry Yake: First year's leading scorer traded to Toronto for David Sacco Sept. 28, 1994.

Robin Bawa: Not re-signed.

Randy Ladouceur: Captain for '95-96.

Stu Grimson: Traded to Detroit.

Jim Thomson: Not re-signed.

Todd Ewen: Enforcer for '95-96.

Myles O'Connor: Not re-signed.

Researched by Elliott Teaford / Los Angeles Times

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