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Back Where He Started, Tverdovsky Is Older, Wiser

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first fake brought the fans to the edge of their seats. The second befuddled the opposing defenseman. The third left the goaltender out of position. The fourth enabled Mighty Duck defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky to slip the puck neatly into the open net.

“It was just incredible,” Coach Craig Hartsburg said after Tverdovsky’s overtime goal had given the Ducks a 6-5 victory Feb. 16 over the Calgary Flames.

An onrushing Tverdovsky moved the puck deftly from his forehand to his backhand, shedding Darryl Shannon. Tverdovsky then went to his forehand and again to his backhand before stuffing home perhaps the most remarkable goal of the Ducks’ season.

Move over Bobby Orr, eh?

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Not so fast.

It’s certainly true that Tverdovsky’s star has risen this season, his first after returning to Anaheim in a draft-day deal last June with the mighty generous Phoenix Coyotes.

His goal against Calgary is one of a career-high 14 this season. He is eight points shy of matching his best of 55 points, set in 1996-97, his first full season with the Coyotes after he was traded for right wing Teemu Selanne.

Tverdovsky, the NHL’s eighth-leading scorer among defensemen, has 28 points-- 10 goals, 18 assists--in his last 29 games.

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However, it’s important to note several things before enshrining him in the Hall of Fame.

First, and perhaps foremost, he is only 23 and has a good deal of hockey ahead of him.

Second, while still a teenager, he was once compared by one overzealous NHL executive to Orr.

Third, he has learned not to shoot off his mouth about a former team on the eve of a key game against that team.

Fourth, he has learned to roll with the punches--literally, in some cases--of demanding teammates, coaches and fans.

Fifth, he is thrilled to be a Duck again.

“I’m just happier overall being here with no problems,” he said. “I’m more relaxed. There had been a few difficulties in Phoenix. Sometimes it was tough. . . . It’s got to be partly my fault also. I can’t say I was good and they were holding me back.”

Three-plus seasons with the Coyotes weren’t much fun.

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Last season, Tverdovsky fought with veteran center Jeremy Roenick three times. Coach Jim Schoenfeld, despite having a number of injured and ineffective defensemen, benched Tverdovsky for the deciding Game 7 of the Coyotes’ first-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues.

Phoenix lost. Schoenfeld was fired. Tverdovsky was traded.

“It’s in the past,” Tverdovsky said. “I see it as an experience. You go through things and it makes you more mature. I know how to handle things better.”

Tverdovsky won’t criticize the Coyotes, tonight’s opponent at the Arrowhead Pond. He won’t say, “I hate that team. I hope we kick their butts,” as he did of the Ducks while with Phoenix before the 1997 playoff series won by Anaheim in seven games.

Asked directly about his fights with Roenick, he said only, “Things like that shouldn’t happen. It means something was wrong on the team.”

Of Schoenfeld, Tverdovsky said, “I was asked to play a role I never played before. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do. I played hard. I don’t think I was cheating or taking the easy way out. Obviously, [Schoenfeld] didn’t like me. All year, there was miscommunication. We weren’t understanding each other.”

Of being scratched for the deciding playoff game against St. Louis, Tverdovsky added, “The frustrating part was, the guy who played in my spot only played 14 seconds. In Game 4, [Schoenfeld] played me on right wing for six shifts.”

The Ducks never wanted to part with Tverdovsky in the first place, but couldn’t resist dealing him and Chad Kilger for Selanne, a proven goal scorer, on Feb. 7, 1996.

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Last summer, when Pierre Gauthier, Duck president and general manager, went looking for a well-rounded defenseman who could move the puck and chip in with a few goals, he instantly thought of Tverdovsky.

Meanwhile, Phoenix General Manager Bobby Smith sought a veteran center. The deal was done with the draft already underway. The Ducks got Tverdovsky for Travis Green and a first-round pick.

It was a steal.

Green had a good start, but tailed off after Christmas and has 22 goals and 39 points. Tverdovsky has been everything the Ducks wanted in a versatile defenseman, and more.

“Oleg has gotten better and better as our games have gotten tougher,” Hartsburg said. “It shows his character. He wants to get better. We just love him. Right now, he’s a big part of our success. Take away those highlight-reel goals and he’s still playing excellent. Those goals are icing on the cake.”

Off the ice, Tverdovsky has become something of a dressing room leader. When he was an 18-year-old rookie, fresh from Moscow, he tiptoed around the Pond. In Phoenix, he was a youngster on a veteran team and nobody particularly cared what he had to say.

But he is an important voice in the youthful Duck dressing room.

After one recent practice, he sat on the Ping-Pong table in the middle of the room, the better to listen in while reporters quizzed goalie Guy Hebert about a lackluster game the night before.

“Tell them to . . . off, Guy,” Tverdovsky said, breaking into a wild laugh. “No, really, tell them to . . . off, Guy.”

Some days earlier, Hebert had said of Tverdovsky, “He’s really learned when to take charge. The biggest development in him I’ve seen is that he’s a smarter player. It’s been nice to see him develop. He’s still a young kid. If he continues to progress, he’s looking at having a long career.”

Naturally, Hebert believes returning to Anaheim has been the best thing for Tverdovsky. He can learn by playing with veteran power-play quarterback Fredrik Olausson and also benefit from being in a more patient organization.

“I know some of the guys who play for Phoenix,” said Hebert, a teammate of Roenick and Keith Tkachuk on the U.S. Olympic and World Cup teams. “They can ride a player pretty hard.”

Unlike Schoenfeld, Tverdovsky says Hartsburg spells out precisely what he wants.

“Craig tells you right to your face what he thinks,” Tverdovsky said. “If you stink, he tells you. Everything is clear. You don’t have to guess. You don’t have to ask him. He comes to you. When a coach comes to you and says you have to do this, this and this--obviously, it helps.”

Tverdovsky still has miles to skate before he’s considered among the league’s best defensemen. But he appears to be headed in that direction.

“Oleg is the type of player that, if he has a bad game, he doesn’t let it affect him,” said left wing Paul Kariya, a fellow rookie in 1994-95. “He’s taken a lot of abuse from the fans with the first trade [and his comments about the Ducks] and now the second trade. I guess the Phoenix fans learned [to boo Tverdovsky] from our fans.

“Has it toughened him? Absolutely.”


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