In a bizarre pregame ritual, Walt Poddubny plops onto a couch, slices a banana into his raisin bran and milk, and plunges a tape into his VCR. As the goons on the screen run through a repertoire of mayhem, Poddubny, a center for the New York Rangers, catalogues the carnage. He identifies slapshots—the forehand, the backhand, the traveling multiple-face slap—before moving on to eye pokes, nose tweaks, skull bashes and two-handed head clunks. These goons aren't the Broad Street Bullies. They're far more notorious merchants of menace: Moe, Larry and Curly, the Three Stooges. "They're crazy, crazy, crazy!" says Poddubny's sparky mother, Nadia. "Walt watches them over and over, and never gets tired of them. They calm him down. They lift him up. They're like medicine."
So maybe a dose of the Stooges before a game might be a tonic for the whole NHL. Last season, while the Rangers were in a state of Stooge-like disarray and 16 players did the Curly Shuffle through their roster, Poddubny was New York's most consistent scoring threat, leading the Rangers in points with 40 goals and 47 assists. He even had a 15-game scoring streak, one shy of the team record set by Mike Rogers in 1982. This season, while New York has been just as lousy—it was 4-9-3 at week's end—Poddubny has been just as effective. Through Saturday's 5-4 defeat by the Los Angeles Kings, he had a team-high 11 goals and 12 assists, despite having missed one game after he suffered a mild concussion and a bruised right shoulder on Nov. 3 in another loss, 5-3 to the Calgary Flames.
Poddubny, center Marcel Dionne and speedy Finnish right wing Tomas Sandstrom give the Rangers whatever attack they have. Sandstrom outskates defensemen and outwits goalies; he popped in 40 goals and assisted on 34 others in only 64 games last season, and had 17 points in New York's first 16 games this season, behind Dionne's 21. In contrast, Poddubny hovers in the slot, waiting for the pass that will unleash what may be the hardest shot in the league.
"There's something about Walt that reminds me of myself a lot of years ago," says Rangers general manager Phil Esposito, a five-time NHL scoring champ when he played for Boston and a Stoogephile himself. "But he's a much better skater than I was and has a much faster release. He's not an easy guy to pick the puck off."
Poddubny strides around the rink with a long, loping gait that's deceptively quick. He's a 6'1", 205-pounder who shoots without a windup, snapping off shots with the strength of his wrists and forearms. The puck flies off the ice so fast that goalies often react more out of fear than skill. "Walt's a big, big man with a heavy, heavy shot," says Ranger left wing Don Maloney. "I don't know if he got it milking cows as a kid or what."
Actually Poddubny, 27, works on the shot during the summer in the backyard of his parents' home in Thunder Bay, Ont. His younger brother, Peter, 17, feeds him 200 pucks in rapid succession on a fiberglass slab. Poddubny whacks them at a woodpile until his wrists are too sore to continue.
When Walt and his wife, Tammy, are in Thunder Bay, he often holes up in his parents' basement, a temple of sorts that he and Peter have dedicated to the Three Stooges. Enshrined there are movie stills, buttons, posters, biographies, comic books, trading cards, scrap-books and nearly 200 Stooges shorts and features, from Woman Haters (1934) to
The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1963). Poddubny keeps a little black book in which he has rated each film. His favorite is An Ache in Every Stake, a Curly classic in which the boys bop one other with frying pans, gouge one another with ice tongs and commit otherwise cheerful acts of Stoogerie. He has made a pilgrimage to the Stooges' star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and he belongs to a Stooges fan club.
Poddubny's hesitant smile and placid demeanor conceal his Stoogemania. "I never need an alarm clock when Walt's my roommate," says Jan Erixon, another leftwinger on the Rangers. "He wakes me up with the Tre Idioter every morning."
Poddubny's lantern jaw and jutting features have led some teammates to call him Sarge, after pro wrestler Sgt. Slaughter. Others just call him enigmatic. "The guy sits in his stall and doesn't say much," says Ranger center Pierre Larouche. "He's a pretty weird dude."
Poddubny isn't the sound that sated elephants make after supper. "It's Ukrainian for 'under the oak tree,' " says Nadia, whose maiden name was Peremeszko. "The Poddubnys are solid family." She and Michael, Walt's father, are Ukrainian immigrants who met and married in Canada. For all you Stooges buffs, Walt was born just after the release of Sappy Bull Fighters and before Snow White and the Three Stooges
. Curly had been dead eight years, Shemp five.