Advertisement

This Script Has Been in Pipeline for Months

Times Staff Writer

Here’s the Hollywood pitch:

A woeful bunch of hockey players on a team that is the league’s doormat stick together and, nudged by their gruff -- but fair -- coach, miraculously go from chumps to champs, with plenty of high jinks along the way.

Whaddaya think?

“Maybe we could call it ‘The Mighty Ducks’ or something?” goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere said, smirking.

Advertisement

Been there, done that.

“Bad News Ducks?” winger Mike Leclerc said, sporting a cheesy grin.

Sorry, kid, that’s a copyright infringement.

“I knew that movie thing would come up,” team captain Paul Kariya said, chuckling.

Advertisement

The Ducks have no one but themselves to blame. They got good.

Still, the concept amuses Duck players. What has been going on at the Arrowhead Pond the last month seems to require simple answers for some. The roll-tape gang that only recently rolled off the 57 freeway has portrayed a condensed-milk version with talk about a “team of destiny” or a “magical” run.

Truth be told, this mystery tour isn’t so magical. The Ducks, their coach and their management have been on this journey for more than a year.

This involved a major overhaul, starting at the top. General Manager Pierre Gauthier was deposed and replaced by Bryan Murray, who brought in 12 new players with names easily recognizable to anyone in Moose Jaw watching “Hockey Night in Canada.”

Advertisement

Adam Oates, Petr Sykora, Steve Thomas, Sandis Ozolinsh and Rob Niedermayer were imported to Anaheim and have helped push the Ducks into the Western Conference finals. Timo Parssinen, Jonas Ronnqvist and Antti-Jussi Niemi were sent packing.

Murray was able to massage the roster without hemorrhaging cash a la New York Ranger-style triage. He got rid of contracts of players he didn’t want -- Jeff Friesen, Oleg Tverdovsky and Steve Shields -- so he could use the money to bring in players he did want.

The payroll inched up about $6 million to $45 million, an increase that has been covered by revenue from five home playoff games.

“There is really nothing magical about this,” Kariya said. “I don’t look at this as a miraculous turnaround. Obviously, it was a big turnaround. But the seeds were there for it.”

Advertisement

So hold the movie. Scratch the ABC afternoon special. And, please, drop the “Poof, you’re a real hockey team now!” references.

“There is no Cinderella,” Coach Mike Babcock said. “That’s a movie. Cinderella means you’re not supposed to be here. Obviously, to the people who haven’t been seeing us every day, this is a surprise. The people who have been paying attention know how good a team we have.”

Word is getting out.

“I went out with some friends a couple weeks ago and five people recognized me,” Leclerc said. “When has that ever happened?”

Advertisement

Center Steve Rucchin has noticed a change on Southern California freeways.

“I’m seeing more and more Duck flags on cars,” Rucchin said. “It used to be all Laker flags. It’s nice to get some equal time.”

Things are going so well now, Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner will surely be dropping by the team dressing room any moment for his photo op.

When he does, he might want to take a scorecard. There has a theme park-like turnover in the player work force.

Advertisement

“This didn’t just happen overnight,” defenseman Keith Carney said. “We were a better team the last part of last season. We were a better defensive team. Jiggy was already one of the best goalies in the league. We just added better players.”

The Ducks allowed the ninth-fewest goals in the NHL last season. Giguere ranked fifth in goals-against average and tied for fifth in save percentage among goalies. The Ducks had a 15-13-2-0 record in their last 30 games.

Yet, they still finished tied for 13th with Nashville. They were treading water at best.

The Ducks needed two things: Some offense and a new direction.

Advertisement

Rarely has firing one man meant so much to a sports franchise.

Gauthier can take credit for acquiring Giguere and Carney, cornerstones of the Ducks’ success, but his overall body of work left the franchise in rubble. His heavy-handed management style was difficult to work under. Little things -- staff being allowed to talk with coaches and players in the office -- were forbidden, employees said.

“Do you really think we would be here right now if Pierre was still running this team?” said one Duck player, asking for anonymity. “Do you think we would have even made the playoffs?”

Paul Pressler, who oversaw the Ducks and Angels for Disney, had a rhetorical answer for those questions last spring. The Ducks finished last in the Western Conference two seasons ago and tied for 13th a year ago. Pressler, who jumped to the Gap Corporation last fall, exiled Gauthier less than a week after the 2001-02 season ended, eating the final year of his contract.

Advertisement

Murray, who’d spent one season as the Ducks’ coach, was bumped up to the general manager, a role he had had with Detroit and Florida.

“No. 1, we needed offense and No. 2, we needed to be a bigger team,” Murray said. “All I did was make some changes and stir the pot.”

And now, things are cooking.

Oates and Sykora arrived in the summer and boosted the offense. Ozolinsh, Thomas and Niedermayer were acquired during the season and have made huge impacts, especially in the playoffs.

Advertisement

“You could see things were headed in the right direction in training camp,” Leclerc said.

Anyone not sure about a change in the wind was given a hint a week into training camp when defenseman Jason York and winger German Titov were sent to the minor league squad.

They had been the “marquee” free agents two summers earlier but it was clear their services were no longer desired. Titov was released and York was traded to Nashville.

Better players replaced them.

Advertisement

All that was needed was a lot of hard work and blinders-on focus. The Ducks had a 25-11-2-3 record the second half of the season, which had them among the NHL’s best teams.

“We’ve come miles since then,” Babcock said. “All that means nothing now, because we have two weeks of hard work ahead of us.

“But when we started out, all we wanted was to stay in the hunt for the first 20 games, then the first 40, then the first 60.”

The numbers have risen like the temperature in Death Valley ... 82 when the regular season ended and a playoff spot was secure ... 86 after a sweep of second-seeded Detroit in the first round ... and, now, 92 after ousting top-seeded Dallas in the conference semifinals.

Advertisement

Quite an extended hunting trip. The Ducks have bagged the Red Wings and the Stars, but feel they have yet to reach their limit.

“We’re not surprised to be here,” Rucchin said. “We knew with the players that were being brought in, we were a better team. We knew that in training camp. We had 95 points this season. That’s not far off from the top teams. We have veteran players here who know how to win. This is not a surprise to us.”

*

NHL

Advertisement

PLAYOFFS

The Mighty Ducks’ schedule for the Western Conference finals:

Game 1

Saturday

Advertisement

at Vancouver or Minnesota, time TBA

Game 2

Monday

at Vancouver or Minnesota, time TBA

Advertisement

Game 3

May 14

at Arrowhead Pond, 6 p.m.

Game 4

Advertisement

May 16

at Arrowhead Pond, 7:30 p.m.

Game 5

May 18

Advertisement

at Vancouver or Minnesota, time TBA *

Game 6

May 20

at Arrowhead Pond, 7:30 p.m. *

Advertisement

Game 7

May 22

at Vancouver or Minnesota, time TBA *

* if necessary

Advertisement


Advertisement