ANAHEIM — A year ago, talk of an Anaheim hockey team brought guffaws and snickers. After all, Southern California was sunshine, Hollywood and Disneyland. But Ducks?
But the year-old Mighty Ducks have become a sports phenomenon and the top-selling merchandiser in the National Hockey League--if not all sports--while posting a relatively sizzling 33 season wins, before Wednesday night's disappointing season finale, a record for a first-year hockey team.
Not bad for a team that outraged hockey purists when Disney's President and CEO Michael Eisner decided on the name.
It seems that not only have the Ducks earned a respectable fourth place in the Pacific Division of the National Hockey League's Western Conference, but their public persona, including the franchise name and nicknames, its home at "the Pond," and the goofy "fowl with a scowl" duck-billed cap, has transcended the game itself.
"The Ducks have reminded all of us what sports is supposed to be all about, which is pure fun," said Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly. "That's how I feel about the Ducks."
The Los Angeles Kings may have the game's all-time leading scorer in Wayne Gretzky, but the Mighty Ducks were born of a movie that sent hundreds of youths outdoors playing street hockey, Daly said.
And while the Angels baseball team gave the city economic vigor and national standing, the Ducks affirmed the city's $103-million gamble, with partner Ogden Entertainment Services, that if it built the Anaheim Arena, a team would come.
"We expected the team to be successful, but this is one of the most amazing success stories in sports," Daly said.
The Mighty Ducks' logo may become the biggest seller of merchandise in all North American pro sports, bigger than basketball's Chicago Bulls and football's Los Angeles Raiders, said NHL officials.
While there is no league attendance ranking, the Mighty Ducks said they believe they are in the top five in the league. The stadium holds 17,174, and the team averages 16,979.
"We have sold out tonight," Robert Scichili, a Mighty Ducks spokesman, said Wednesday before the Ducks' season-closing game against the Vancouver Canucks. (They lost, 2-1.) "We posted 27 sellouts in our first year out of 41 games at the Pond. . . . The last 25 were sold out. You can't have a sellout unless the suites are sold."
Originally, there were fears that Orange County fans would sit on their hands in a deadly politeness.
"Some people said they were afraid that Orange County would produce a white wine and Ceasar salad bunch," said Judge William W. Bedsworth, who is both an Orange County Superior Court judge and home-game goal judge. "But fans have turned out to be fantastic."
(Bedsworth added that his two jobs this year have earned him the nickname "Judge Judge" and greetings such as, "Your Honor Your Honor.")
Aided somewhat by the arena's electronic pyrotechnics--a scoreboard that explodes in visual displays with each Mighty Duck goal--Orange County fans have become quick learners, team officials said.
"Remember, we had some people who haven't been exposed to hockey until the Gretzky trade and when our franchise began," Scichili said. "Now, I've had people call me up and ask, 'Can you please explain a particular rule, like what is a goal-against average?' I always explain the answer to them because it shows they are really curious."
Contributing to all this enthusiasm is the Pond itself, which NHL officials have called a great arena.
"Every team representative and NHL official has found some reason to come to this building and has just marveled," Bedsworth said. "It's a great building to see hockey."
For fan Gary Desrouchers of Villa Park, the whole season has been a surprise.
Desroucher, an L.A. Kings fan who nevertheless decided to invest in a 14-game Mighty Ducks package for the inaugural year, said he plans to do it again next season.
"I told my wife the Ducks wouldn't win more than 10 games this year," he said. "And what have they won--like 33? Plus, they lack talented players as compared to the Kings. These guys may end up in the playoffs next year."
Mark and Gail Larsen of Corona were decked out Wednesday night in Mighty Ducks shirts, jackets and caps, and each had a duck call.
"I just came to the first game of the year, and I fell in love with it," said Gail, 32. "And you know what we just did? We walked up to the booth to get information for season tickets for next year."