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The Last LAUGH
Michael Farber
May 26, 2003
With the retooled Mighty Ducks going for the Cup, the joke—finally—is no longer on them
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May 26, 2003

The Last Laugh

With the retooled Mighty Ducks going for the Cup, the joke—finally—is no longer on them

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The Magical Mighty Ducks of Anaheim are in the Stanley Cup finals, a unique opportunity to etch their names on the most recognizable trophy in sports, to win swell rings and to put a stop to the tiresome Daffy Duck videos that are shown in the 29 NHL arenas they visit. "You know, the cartoon about duck season with [ Elmer Fudd as] the hunter," says Anaheim center Steve Rucchin, who has been a Duck since 1994-95. "Maybe now they'll find something different."

The Mighty Ducks, whose goofy name was born of a Disney movie and who are owned by the conglomerate, beg for derision. After all, this is a franchise with a statue of its mascot, Wild Wing, at an entrance to Arrowhead Pond. Not exactly the bronze of Wayne Gretzky that stands outside Skyreach Centre in Edmonton, is it? Still, rampaging through three playoff rounds in only 14 games in the tough Western Conference whitewashes a decade of unforgivable kitsch and indifferent hockey. The gags are over, meaning from now on nobody dares suggest that a Duck goalie named J.S. (Jiggy) Giguere did the ornithologically impossible by putting up goose eggs in a playoff shutout streak of 217 minutes and 54 seconds; that Jiggy, Stumpy (19-year wing Steve Thomas) and Cheesy (rookie wing Stanislav Chistov) are Snow White's backup dwarfs; and that the Ducks are all they're quacked up to be. As Rucchin said last Friday in his best Elmer Fudd impersonation, after Anaheim had finished its sweep of the Minnesota Wild with a 2-1 victory, "No more wabbits."

The Mighty Ducks are a lesson in the cathartic effects of change—not just change in the roster (half of the 20 players who dressed in that Western Conference finale were not with Anaheim last season) but also change in the team's culture. New general manager Bryan Murray, with help from cocksure rookie coach Mike Babcock, has reshaped an organization in one season, making the Ducks tough to play against with their sticky defensive style and—as important—making them fun to play for. "You'd have thought the Disney idea was to entertain people, to treat people right," says Murray, 60. "But there wasn't a lot of joy here."

Focused on gimmicks and star left wing Paul Kariya, the Magic Kingdom was a Potemkin village, a smiley-face facade for a grim franchise. Murray, who joined Anaheim as coach in 2001-02 and then became general manager after Pierre Gauthier was fired from that job in April '02, was stunned in his first season when he walked into the Ducks' offices, which are diagonally across from the dressing room. When Murray strolled by, front-office employees would avert their eyes. "I'd say, 'Good morning,' and...nothing," Murray says. "I'd tell them it was O.K.—they were allowed to talk to me. But the philosophy [of Gauthier] was that the players had their place, the staff had theirs, and there should be no interaction."

This was not a button-down approach, it was a button-your-lip one. "I had a friend in the front office in sales," says left wing Mike Leclerc, who has played four full seasons in Anaheim. "Three years ago I was injured and was watching a game in the arena, and this guy was sitting with one of his friends, so I sat with them. The next day, this guy got called into the office and reamed for talking to me. How could you have people selling me when they couldn't even talk to me?"

Murray, who stepped down as coach after becoming the G.M., instituted an open-mouth policy. He also designated a video coordinator. For a team owned by one of the world's most storied communications companies, the Ducks astonishingly did not have the equipment to digitally break down game tapes. When Murray and his staff wanted to go over video, they used an old-fashioned VCR and got help from a staffer on the Anaheim Angels, who were also owned by Disney until last week. "This was like the Dark Ages of hockey," Murray says.

But some light could be seen through the cracks. In 2001-02 Giguere refined his square-to-the-shot technique and had a .920 save percentage, presaging this spring's monster playoff performance: a .960 save percentage and a 1.22 goals-against average. There was a nucleus of rugged, shutdown defensemen that included Keith Carney, Ruslan Salei and the indefatigable Kariya. Murray needed complementary scoring help for Kariya as well as a deft passer who could make the NHL's most feeble power play more than a waste of two minutes. The G.M. also had to clear out unhappy players such as defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky, the Jeff George of power-play quarterbacks, and underachieving winger Jeff Friesen. All within a budget, of course.

The first steps toward Anaheim's 26-point regular-season improvement in 2002-03 came last July, when Murray began shuffling his roster like a three-card-monte dealer. On July 1 he signed free-agent center Adam Oates, a soon-to-be-40-year-old passing wizard who could get Kariya the puck and also run the power play from the left half-boards. Six days later Murray traded Tverdovsky and Friesen to the New Jersey Devils for Petr Sykora, a right wing who would lead the Ducks with 34 goals during the regular season. The bookend snapshots of the sweep over the Wild were Sykora's goal in the 1-0 double overtime win in Game 1 and Oates's two goals in Game 4, both scored with the man advantage.

Murray had a knack for identifying players who could make a difference, and Disney allowed the payroll to creep from $36 million to $41 million. The initial indication that Anaheim considered itself more than playoff ballast came at the All-Star break, when Murray acquired Sandis Ozolinsh, an exquisitely skilled but flighty and expensive ($5.5 million per season) defenseman, from the Florida Panthers. At the March trade deadline Murray plucked Thomas, 39, from the Chicago Blackhawks and rescued center Rob Niedermayer from the Calgary Flames. Despite good speed and strength, the 6'2", 205-pound Niedermayer, 28, had devolved into the most disappointing player in hockey, scoring 26 goals for Florida in 1995-96, when the Panthers made the Cup finals, but never approaching that number again. "You give Rob a role of importance and not expect a big-time scorer, he'll make you happy every night," Murray says of one of his favorite players with the Panthers, for whom he was G.M. from 1994-95 through 2000-01.

Led by the 40-year-old Babcock, the Mighty Ducks finally have forged an identity beyond the cartoonish logo—one of a smart, swift team that is superb on the counterattack. Babcock has given them an identity, not a personality. Anaheim is a flat-line team emotionally, the antithesis of its caffeinated coach, who woofed at the Minnesota bench in Game 3 after Wild enforcer Matt Johnson got tangled with Giguere in the third period. Babcock apologized the next day with the same brio, saying, "The first thing that happened when I woke up at 6:30 in the morning, my kids were in my bed. They told me that I had inappropriate behavior and they've got to go to Catholic school and answer for their dad acting his shoe size instead of his age. I'm very sorry about that. That won't happen again."

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