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MIGHTY DUCK NOTEBOOK / ROBYN NORWOOD : He's Motivated by Native Pride

October 14, 1995|ROBYN NORWOOD

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Denny Lambert's name is French, but the pride he felt pumping through his veins Friday night in Memorial Auditorium was for the Ojibway tribe.

Lambert is one-half Ojibway and springs from the same people as Buffalo Coach Ted Nolan, a full-blooded Ojibway who has become a model for those living on Canadian reserves who wonder how they can succeed in the outside world without abandoning traditional ways.

Lambert, whose father is French Canadian and mother is Ojibway, did not grow up on the reserve as Nolan did, but was born nearby, in Wawa, Ontario. When he went to play junior hockey for the nearby Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, he met Nolan, then an assistant coach who still lived on the Garden River Reserve, a community of about 800.

Their relationship became partly something between a player and a coach, partly something closer to kinship.

"Together we face the same problems, you know what each goes through. You understand each other and respect each other," said Lambert, who knows that Nolan had to overcome prejudice as a boy to reach the NHL. "People look down on Natives. They see Natives and they immediately think about drugs and alcohol.

"I look up to him as my role model. He's a guy who played the game and now teaches it. He shows you never give up. He's done well and he does reach out to a lot of people."

Nolan became the head coach for Lambert's final two seasons in Sault Ste. Marie, and was named coach of the Sabres at 37 this summer after spending last season as an assistant for the Hartford Whalers.

When the season is over, Lambert and other NHL players with similar backgrounds such as Gino Odjick and Chris Simon join Nolan at hockey schools for Native children, some in remote areas around James Bay in northern Ontario.

"A lot never leave the reserve. They're born there, they live there and they die there," Lambert said. "Sometimes when you see the situation, it's hard. A lot of people don't have self-esteem. He gives them something to believe in."

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The Ducks will get reacquainted with Mario Lemieux tonight in Pittsburgh, and the four-time scoring champion has said he feels better than he ever has after his 18-month layoff following back surgery and treatment for Hodgkin's disease.

Lemieux, expected to play 65-70 games this season, also says he didn't come back to be "average," and with eight points in three games, he hasn't been.

"I think it's great, but I say that as a fan, not as a coach," the Ducks' Ron Wilson said. "When he's healthy, he's the best player in the game. He dominates a game in a way Wayne Gretzky never could because of his size. Mario's 6-6, 220, strong and has a reach. He can manhandle people."

Duck defenseman Bobby Dollas lived with Lemieux when they played for the Laval Voisins of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but he said he has no good memories of playing against him in the NHL--"Only nightmares," Dollas said. "Guys are so passive against him because if you play up on him he'll step around you and make you look stupid, or saucer one right through your legs."

Duck captain Randy Ladouceur remembers how stupid Lemieux once made the Hartford Whalers look.

"Our game plan was to put a man on Mario Lemieux whenever he was on the ice, which is something a lot of teams have tried," Ladouceur said. "We decided we were going to do it even if we were shorthanded."

The Penguins went on a power play, "And Mario Lemieux realized what was happening," Ladouceur said. "He went over and stood by his bench--and our guy followed him over there. We ended up playing them shorthanded 4 on 3, with Lemieux standing at the red line resting his arm on the boards.

"Needless to say we never tried that game plan again."

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Stat of the Week: After having the NHL's worst penalty-killing last season (75.6%), the Ducks have killed 25 of the first 26 power-play opportunities against them this season, ranking among the league leaders at .961.

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