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Ducks get last laugh -- and the Cup to show for it

THEY hugged and cried and grabbed each other’s shoulders just to have something to hang onto, so wondrous and knee-weakening was the moment.

After dreaming of this day while they skated on frozen lakes and backyard rinks, after looking at the Stanley Cup longingly from afar, the Ducks claimed the glorious trophy as their own Wednesday with a 6-2 rout of the Ottawa Senators that ended the finals in a stunningly swift five games.

Like so many other hopeful souls who migrated to California to pursue their dreams, the Ducks toiled in obscurity for a decade.

A team that includes a farm boy from Saskatchewan, a stoic Swede, a Finn with an atypically happy nature, a sprinkling of Americans and more than a dozen sons of Canada came together on the common ground of frozen water to become the first California-based team to claim the most revered trophy in professional sports.

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After hoisting the Cup above his head and affixing a loving smooch, team captain Scott Niedermayer passed it to his brother, Rob, to the roaring approval of the sellout crowd at the Honda Center. Rob, the muscular winger who lifted his game to new heights this spring, passed the Cup surely to Chris Pronger, who handed it off to Teemu Selanne, the popular winger who had waited 15 years for this and couldn’t hold back a flood of tears.

It was the climax of an unlikely journey for the Ducks, who were born in 1993 amid the squawk of plastic duck calls and grimaces on the faces of horrified hockey traditionalists.

Launched as part of the National Hockey League’s expansion beyond its roots in the Northeast and Midwest, the Ducks had only a few months to build a team and create an identity. They also had to compete with the L.A. Kings, who were part of the NHL’s first major expansion in 1967 and had just completed their most successful season, which ended in a five-game loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals.

Although the Ducks had a sparkling new arena in Anaheim and the backing of Disney’s marketing genius, they were the second banana in a market that hadn’t always shown it could support one banana.

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In 1993, though, the Kings were at their peak. They had the game’s greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, and a celebrity-studded following. The Ducks had a ragtag roster of castoffs and wannabes that included enforcer Stu “The Grim Reaper” Grimson and the enormously talented Paul Kariya, who became their first 50-goal scorer but had precious little support.

The Kings had brought in or developed some elite players, such as Marcel Dionne, Luc Robitaille, Larry Murphy and Rogie Vachon. The newborn Ducks were saddled with a name drawn from a Disney movie, and their logo of an angry-looking cartoon duck and jade-and-eggplant uniforms inspired derisive chuckles around the NHL.

No one is laughing at the Ducks anymore.

They are champions, and deservedly so. They overpowered the Minnesota Wild, Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings and, finally, the Senators, creating believers out of skeptics and the doubtful Eastern-concentrated media.

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“There’s something inside me that wishes that the Kings were the first team to win the Stanley Cup here, but I think this is great for hockey in Southern California,” said Robitaille, who spent most of his career with the Kings and is now their president of business operations.

“The Ducks have done a tremendous job of selling the game. They’ve put together an amazing team and have done a lot of great things.”

The Ducks’ five-game triumph, celebrated by fans who camped out in the parking lot hours before the game and painted players’ names and numbers on the sides of their cars and minivans, continues two trends within the NHL.

It means that Canada, where hockey is an essential part of everyday life, will mark 14 years without a Cup champion.

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And it means that for the third consecutive season, the Cup will reside in a nontraditional hockey city.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, born in 1992, won the Cup in 2004. After a season lost to a lockout, the Raleigh, N.C.-based Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Edmonton Oilers in a seven-game final last spring.

“It’s easy to get lost here, with all the different sports and teams,” said Tim Ryan, the Ducks’ chief operating officer, “but we certainly have gained respect in Southern California.”

The Ducks have gained respect within the NHL, too, making Southern California a desirable stop for players who want to win, not just work on their putting game.

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The Ducks had rarely attracted elite free agents because players preferred the easy travel Eastern Conference teams enjoy. Signing slick-skating defenseman Scott Niedermayer in 2005 changed that because he’s in his prime. He helped the Ducks reach the Western Conference finals last season and that, in turn, persuaded Pronger to accept a trade to Anaheim last summer.

Niedermayer -- who was named MVP of the playoffs -- and Pronger were pillars of strength all season, completing the Ducks’ transformation into a fearless, rugged team that played on the edge and was always entertaining.

Brian Burke, hired as general manager in 2005 shortly after Broadcom chairman and co-founder Henry Samueli and his wife, Susan, bought the franchise from the Walt Disney Co., weeded out timid players and those who wouldn’t play an up-tempo style. These new Ducks sometimes went over the edge and took needless penalties but were a smash on the ice and at the box office, selling out their last 34 games.

Everybody loves a winner, and the bandwagon fills up quickly during a title run. But Ducks executives believe that after the Cup parade ends, they will develop a fan base that can carry them if tough times come.

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Hockey will never be as popular here as in Canada or Minnesota, but the Ducks are carving out a distinctive niche. They’ve sold 14,000 season tickets for next season and Ryan said sponsorships are up too.

The next step is to expand the TV audience. That’s complicated by the scarcity of homes that get Versus, the cable network whose lack of visibility may yet kill the NHL, if Commissioner Gary Bettman’s unbalanced schedule and inability to promote the skill and terrific personalities in his league don’t kill it first.

“The reality is, the sport is growing,” Ryan said, “and that’s great for the Ducks, the Kings and hockey in general. We’ve felt since Day One that a grass-roots approach is what will work.”

For the Ducks, that means operating a kids’ club, which embraced 6,000 future ticket buyers this season and plans to expand to 10,000. It also means working with local rinks to promote hockey, which competes with figure skating for ice time.

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According to USA Hockey, which governs the sport at the youth level, nearly 14,000 hockey players had registered in Southern California for the 2006-07 season, which ends Aug. 31. That’s up from 5,189 players registered for the 1991-92 season.

Michael Schulman, the Ducks’ chief executive, said the club is hoping to build and operate rinks in southern Orange County, Chino, Upland and Riverside. He’s hopeful that an ice rink will be included in the Great Park in Irvine.

He added, “There’s enough of a fan base here and it’s such a great sport, we’re convinced this can work.”

It already has on many levels. The Ducks brought a championship to Anaheim on Wednesday and Robitaille said that will inspire the Kings, who surely need all the motivation they can get.

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Come the day that the Kings get their act together and get their names engraved on the Cup, the Ducks will always have the satisfaction of knowing they were first.

Talk about a Miracle on Ice.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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