The Toronto management wasn't exactly pleased two years ago when Poddubny took his contract negotiation to arbitration in a salary dispute. "They wouldn't have minded, except that I won," he says. "As Curly would say, 'I was a victim of soicumstance.' "
When Poddubny developed a foot infection in training camp before the 1985-86 season, the Leafs questioned his enthusiasm and shipped him to their American Hockey League gulag in St. Catharines, Ont., for rehabilitation. "Either you start working and try to get out of here," said Tammy, "or forget about hockey." Poddubny got the message and produced 28 goals and 27 assists in 37 games. He returned to Toronto, where he remained unhappy. "I nearly got an ulcer," he says. With actor John Candy, a long-suffering Leafs fan, he would brood over his troubles. They would trade Curly impersonations and watch Candy's Stooges tapes. "Walt and I agree that the magic of Stooge humor is its subtlety," says Candy. "Of course, the odd slap in the face or two fingers in the eyes didn't hurt."
Candy was Dr. Tongue in mock 3-D extravaganzas on SCTV's Monster Horror Chiller Theater. Poddubny tried to get DR. TONGUE put on his license plate, but someone else beat him to it. He did give the name to a small brass elephant he squeezes for good luck. "I liked Dr. Tongue in 3-D House of Wax and 3-D House of Pancakes," Poddubny says, "but I identified most with his 3-D House of Stewardesses. In that one, Dr. Tongue gives some stranded flight attendants a potion that turns them into slave chicks."
When Esposito became New York's general manager after the 1985-86 season, a top priority was to beef up his team's anemic attack. One of his first moves was to trade for Poddubny. But some Rangers thought Poddubny might be a dud. "When we got him, the question was not how he'd do as much as whether he'd even make the team," says Maloney.
But Esposito, who was traded from Chicago to Boston before becoming an NHL star, says, "Sometimes you've got to change teams before getting a chance to show what you can really do."
Poddubny was moved from left wing to center, a position he had not played since leaving Wichita. "I thought if Walt played in the middle, he could be more creative," says Espo. "I hoped he would be more productive offensively with a little more room to roam." In Poddubny's first 11 games he had six goals and 14 assists, and showed an array of behind-the-back and between-the-legs passes that most of his teammates would not even attempt. "Some guys are sluggers and muggers," says Maloney. "Walt is an artist."
Poddubny's panache has conquered the headhunters in Madison Square Garden's blue seats, a dim region high above the ice to which, it's rumored, Margaret Mead had planned to make her final expedition. "We've had our fill of lackadaisical players, figure-eighters whose quickest route is to the bench rather than the puck," says Ken Murrell, a blue-seater who until recently wrote, edited and published Tonite, an alternative program for his fellows in the cheap seats. "Poddubny is viewed as a hustler and a worker. He very rarely has an unproductive shift."
In a game early this season against the Hartford Whalers, Poddubny controlled the puck 10 feet in front of the Whalers' crease. But Hartford center Doug Jarvis grabbed Poddubny's free hand and jammed on the brakes. Poddubny spun around in his best Curly imitation. He shuffled his feet, he rolled his eyes, he did the entire Stooge routine except for the nyuk, nyuk, nyuk. The referee did everything but applaud. He slapped Jarvis with a two-minute penalty for holding.
"In Stooge terms, Walt has a Larry attitude about his play," says Candy. "He'll get whomped into a corner and bounce right back."
But the hard-checking Philadelphia Flyers nonetheless stopped Poddubny in last season's playoffs. They shut him out—no goals, no assists—in six postseason games. "Playing Philadelphia is like taking on Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp all at once," says Poddubny. "The difference is that when the Flyers poke at you, it's for real."