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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : Kings Know Things to Be Tough for Ducks

September 15, 1993|HELENE ELLIOTT

BLUE JAY, Calif. — The Kings know the Mighty Ducks have built a physical team.

"I saw they signed four, five tough guys," King Coach Barry Melrose said, smiling.

The Ducks know they owe their existence to the Kings and Wayne Gretzky.

"It's unbelievable what he's done for the NHL in California," Duck General Manager Jack Ferreira said. "He's put it on the map. The Kings really helped us. They created fans for us, people who really got interested in the games and watched on Prime Ticket. The timing (of the Kings' Stanley Cup run last spring) was excellent for our franchise, as far as selling tickets and advertising (are concerned)."

Although the first puck has yet to be dropped between them, Southern California's two hockey teams have become closely entwined. Each is aware that the success of one will promote success for both.

Their priorities in training camp are vastly different, since every job is open on the Ducks and probably none will be on the Kings. But as the Kings attempt to build on last season's runner-up finish and the Ducks attempt to simply be competitive in their first season, they're taking similar methodical approaches.

The Ducks, who have a young team and only one 20-goal scorer, know they can't match opponents offensively. It's the matchups in the corners and in front of the net they intend to win, hoping to wear opponents down and keep games close with a bruising style of play.

"Size and strength are an equalizer," Ferreira said earlier this week. "Hopefully, some nights teams will take a skill guy or two out of their lineup and put size in, and when they do that, we close the gap."

That talent gap could resemble a chasm at times. The Kings sympathize with the Ducks' probable plight.

"I don't think the expansion draft was fair," Luc Robitaille said. "They don't get a good choice of players. The only good choice they had was the goalies. Maybe they had to go that way (building around toughness).

"The bottom line is, the Ducks want to draw. Going by what they have from the expansion draft, it's going to be hard to win a lot of games. But a lot of players on that team were on the third line with their old teams, and put them on the first line (with the Ducks) and it could be different."

Then, too, toughness is not always measured by roundhouse rights.

"I don't think being tough means fighting. It means character," Robitaille said. "Take guys like Mike Donnelly or Tony Granato. Being tough means turning in the corner and taking a hit and going to the net to score a goal. Take guys like Alex Zhitnik, he'll always go to the net, no matter if it means taking a hit or if there's a stick there. We've played against some tough teams last year that tried to intimidate us and couldn't."

Melrose, without criticizing the Ducks, contends that toughness is no substitute for skill. But of course, he has plenty of skill in Gretzky, Robitaille, Rob Blake, Jari Kurri, Tony Granato and Tomas Sandstrom.

"You have to be able to play and score goals," Melrose said. "I love size and I love toughness but there's more to toughness than size. . . . Your young guys cannot be scared to play. But the days of going out and getting the 20 toughest guys you can find are over. The rules take care of that."

Melrose learned the value of toughness and resilience last season. A spate of training-camp injuries told him he had scheduled scrimmages too soon. This time, he made sure everyone was in top shape before putting players through fast-paced workouts Monday and Tuesday. He also learned that with a grueling travel schedule, he will need a two- or three-man taxi squad to give the older players rest.

He won't need to change much, and he won't need to win his players' trust, because he earned that in leading them to the Stanley Cup finals last spring.

"He got us believing in his system, and that's the key," Sandstrom said.

Added Melrose, "Right now, I'm very comfortable with what we've got. We got younger and bigger and we're taking the steps to become the organization we want to become."

The Kings and Ducks are sure to become rivals quickly. "That will be great when it happens," Robitaille said. "Great for us and great for the fans."

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