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'95-'96 Season Preview : Growing Pains : The Mighty Ducks begin their third season looking to balance big business with winning hockey. They're hoping success can be found with a keen eye on the bottom line.

October 09, 1995|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Ferreira stepped toward the jury box in an Orange County courtroom this summer, half worried he was about to be chosen to serve on a lengthy criminal trial, half fascinated by the strategies of the attorneys.

When his turn came, Ferreira gave his name and occupation--general manager of the Mighty Ducks. But no courtroom drama could have prepared him for the first words of defense attorney Jon Alexander:

"I can't believe you didn't sign Joel Otto."

Not much later, Alexander--a Duck fan--struck Ferreira from the jury on a preemptive challenge, sending the amused hockey executive back to his office to keep working toward the Ducks' third season.

Year 1 was all novelty, Year 2 was marred by a labor dispute, but in Year 3, expectations are beginning to take hold.

"It's not, 'What are your colors?' anymore," Ferreira said.

The Mighty Ducks are growing up. Once mostly a marketing phenomenon, they are now being scrutinized in more traditional ways.

So much of what was predicted--even feared--about the Ducks hasn't come true. They have yet to ruin hockey, as some Canadian pundits screamed they would. (In fact, it is the expansion team in Canada's capital, the Ottawa Senators, that has proved an embarrassment to the game.) Mickey Mouse isn't allowed on the premises of Duck games, nor is Goofy. Michael Eisner hasn't single-handedly pushed through a shootout rule to decide ties, forced a trade, fired his GM or demanded his coach stand in front of the bench to be more visible for the cameras.

What is emerging is a hockey team with a corporate face--businesslike and bottom-line oriented. Anyone who thought a Walt Disney Co.-owned NHL franchise would lavish Lion King loot on free agents doesn't know Disney and hasn't paid attention to the Ducks, who in many ways rank among the NHL's most conservative teams.

They operate on tight budgets, elaborate five-year plans, profit projections and an almost unbending will to build the team slowly with high draft picks, careful trades and, for the most part, lower-salaried players.

"I never had a thought they'd be indiscriminate," said Boston Bruins' president and general manager Harry Sinden, one of the NHL's old-guard conservatives. "I know Disney and I know Mr. Eisner and I was confident they'd handle it just the way they have: Sensibly."

"Conservative is one word," said player agent Jeff Solomon, who represents some of the Ducks. "They're conservative as an organization, but that's not just hockey, that's the whole company. It's a Fortune 500 company. They're cautious and intelligent about the decisions they make, and they utilize the rules that have been negotiated to their benefit. From a business standpoint, no one can blame you for that."

Conservative, cautious . . . it's not what some NHL owners thought they were getting.

"A lot of people in the league are afraid of corporate ownership because they think they'll be big spenders," said Pierre Gauthier, Ducks' assistant general manager. "If we decided we were going to buy every free agent in the league, who's going to stop us? But it turns out that in most cases with corporate ownership, you're talking about a publicly traded company, and shareholders expect profits. Disney is not going to own a hockey team if it's a losing proposition."

Or in the words of Coach Ron Wilson, "This isn't a toy for Disney or Michael Eisner, where you take all the money you make and spend it. . . . I don't think Disneyland is a benevolent public trust and not in it for profit, either."

With The Pond of Anaheim filled to its brim most of the first two seasons and a steady crowd of 17,174 willing to pay to see an expansion team in Disney trappings, it begs the question: What motivation is there for the Ducks to dip into their millions of dollars of profits and buy a winner?

Tony Tavares, president of Disney Sports Enterprises, insists the team will spend--when the time is right. Ferreira says he has "no qualms" that that's true and that the Ducks already proved it when they signed left wing Paul Kariya to a three-year $6.5-million contract last year--a deal so rich it upset most of the Ducks' conservative allies in the NHL. "What have we ever done or not done that shows we're not committed to winning?" Ferreira said.

Still, the Ducks are enjoying a grace period of uncertain duration--one that was probably shortened both times the team raised ticket prices.

"As long as you're competitive, and as long as they believe you have a commitment, that's really the key issue," Tavares said.

"But if the fans think you're selling them out, if they think you have taken on a position where you don't care about the competitiveness of the team, then I think fan support wanes very, very rapidly."

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