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Transition Player : Since Being Traded From Montreal, Lebeau Is Finding Niche With Ducks

March 26, 1994|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The morning after he was traded for the first time in his life, Stephan Lebeau picked up the newspaper at home in Montreal last month and saw himself staring back from the front page.

By the time he joined the Mighty Ducks in Buffalo later that day, he knew he had left behind the peculiar pressure and glory of being a Montreal Canadien.

"In the U.S., it was a tiny line," Lebeau said.

He had gone from a team that had won 24 Stanley Cups to one that hadn't won that many games .

He had gone from a team whose dressing room is recreated in full and reverent detail in the Hockey Hall of Fame to one whose players probably wouldn't be recognized if they stood in line to pay admission.

He had gone from living his boyhood dream to a team that, as a boy, he never dreamed would exist.

Lebeau, a small, playmaking center--only 5-10 and 170 pounds, if that--was acquired Feb. 20 in exchange for goalie Ron Tugnutt. Lebeau grew up 30 minutes outside Montreal, and the Canadiens held a special place in the imaginations of the French-speaking youngsters in his town.

"Hockey was everything for us," he said. "I started playing at the age of 5 and I was skating at the age of 3. So hockey has been my life since I was born. I was on the ice almost every day during wintertime. During summertime, you played on the street."

And almost every day you played, you pretended you played for Les Habitants.

Lebeau got to live the dream. No one else from his town did, except his younger brother, Patrick, who played two games with Montreal during the 1990-91 season. Stephan was only 25 last year when he lay sprawled on the ice laughing, posing with his teammates and the Stanley Cup.

"It was the greatest achievement of my life," Lebeau said. "The best moment of my life, too."

He was the team's fourth-leading scorer, with 31 goals and 49 assists, and he had three goals and three assists in 13 playoff games. With his pinpoint-accuracy shot, he led the Canadiens in shooting percentage at 20.7%.

But after an ankle injury kept him out for long stretches this season and he came back only to be a somewhat ineffective third-line center, he knew he was going to be traded. He wasn't going to get the ice time he needed to thrive, and once he got used to the idea of not being a Canadien, it wasn't the worst thing in the world. Where he was going, he would play more--and hopefully better.

"I had a chance to play at least five years in my own city. It was a great thing, but now it's over," Lebeau said. "For me, I've turned the page on Montreal. I'm very happy to be here, I just want to help the team."

That he has done. The past week and a half, Lebeau has broken out of his adjustment period with five points in four games on two goals and three assists. He might be doing even more if the more of the Ducks were good enough to finish the chances he creates.

"We don't have a lot of guys who can really play with him," General Manager Jack Ferreira said. "(Joe) Sacco has come along, he's got the speed. (Lebeau) is a give-and-go type center. You need skill to play that way."

Lebeau's first nine games as a Duck were no great shakes, at least as far as production. He was creating chances, but he didn't break the ice until his third game as a Duck, with a goal and an assist against the Quebec Nordiques.

But the transition wasn't going to be that easy and immediate. He went the next six games without a point--including a disappointing and emotionally charged first meeting with the Canadiens. Coach Ron Wilson saw a player who was pressing, and was glad the first meeting was over.

Wilson, who first tried Lebeau on a small line with wingers Tim Sweeney and Terry Yake, lately has had him centering Troy Loney and Sacco--a blend of size and speed.

"He's getting a little more comfortable," Wilson said as Lebeau got used to his new teammates. "He's a small guy, a little bit like a Cliff Ronning-type player in Vancouver. When Cliff gets in trouble, it's when he's trying to maneuver through traffic and not move the puck. Stephan (was) pressing a little bit with the puck and he's been caught in some traffic. He's got to play away from the traffic and move the puck quicker."

After a month now, the transition has been made, and Lebeau is clearly the most skilled player on the team, especially with Anatoli Semenov sidelined by injuries.

He is not finding it easy to lose so often for the first time in his career, but there are trade-offs. He has talked to other players who have left the Canadiens--Stephane Richer, Claude Lemieux, Denis Savard--and there was a theme to what he heard.

"They said the pressure was less," Lebeau said. "Montreal is maybe one of the toughest places to play because of the pressure from the fans and the press.

"It's a great place to play hockey when things go well, but when things go wrong it's probably the worst place to play hockey."

Expectations?

"People want you to win two Cups in a year," Lebeau said with a smile and a shrug. "When you lose a game, they're not happy. So I cannot imagine how it would have been in Montreal, what we've been through here, those three games without scoring. It's different. It doesn't mean it's better, just hockey's been there so long. They're used to winning the Cup every three years, or almost."

With the Ducks, expectations are so much lower. They don't expect to win it until four years from now. Really . Wilson does occasionally grant that might be optimistic--so he says maybe they should just aim to make the final in their fifth year, not necessarily win it, too.

Lebeau doesn't scoff at their presumption. He approves.

"It's a fact that I've won once, but when you win the Cup, you want it back. It doesn't mean that by going to a new team I don't want to win another Stanley Cup. That's why I'm happy. I heard that they want to win the Cup here five years from now."

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