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Rebuilding Project

MIGHTY DUCKS '98-'99

Pierre Gauthier Returns To Anaheim, Entrusted With Getting The Ducks Back On Course

October 06, 1998|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | LOS ANGELES TIMES

Pierre Gauthier is either a saint or a sinner, depending on your point of view.

Maybe he's both. Perhaps he's neither.

What's certain is that he has been given one of the toughest jobs in the NHL. Or to be more precise, it's not the job that's so difficult, but the immediate task at hand: making the Mighty Ducks winners again and doing it without breaking the bank.

If we've learned nothing else in five years about the Walt Disney Co.'s involvement with professional sports, it's that money is everything.

Gauthier, named Duck president and general manager last summer, has been down this road before and knows the formula well.

Win without a fat payroll. No blockbuster trades. Few ballyhooed free-agent signings.

"We've got to be realistic," Gauthier said. "I'm not a guy for big promises. The league and the Western Conference are very close. At this point in its history, this is a middle-of-the-road franchise. How many teams are significantly better off? Not too many. How many are significantly worse off? Only a few."

Gauthier knows the Ducks.

He was there at the beginning, when he was named assistant general manager of the expansion team in 1993. He then joined the Ottawa Senators to become general manager in 1995.

In both jobs, he was asked to help turn his team from laughingstock to legit and to accomplish the feat with the aforementioned restrictions.

The difference was that the Ducks seemed to have a good thing going right away. They had quality players to work with, a bright young coach in Ron Wilson and a sparkling new arena.

The expansion Senators were a mess. Their original draft in 1992 was almost worthless, they went through a number of coaches and were hindered by being based in a small-market Canadian city.

With Gauthier's help the Ducks were pointed in a direction that would eventually take them to their first winning season and a Stanley Cup playoff appearance in 1996-97. With his leadership in Ottawa, the Senators reached the playoffs in 1996-97 and 1997-98.

That much is fact.

Suspicions in Ottawa

What's more difficult to discern are the circumstances surrounding his departure from Anaheim on Dec. 11, 1995, and his subsequent return on July 16, 1998.

Gauthier's motives have been questioned by Ottawa fans and reporters and he agrees that some of his answers strained his credibility.

Tony Tavares, president of Disney's sports operation in Anaheim, has heard the rumors and listened to the speculation.

He discounts theories floated by Canadian reporters that suggest the Ogden Corp., which operates the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim and the Corel Centre in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata, was behind Gauthier's moves.

He scoffed at the notion that the Ducks allowed Gauthier to go to Ottawa to rescue the Senators just as long as he was able to return to Anaheim as soon as the franchise appeared to be running smoothly.

"First, the suggestion that Ogden played a role in his return is pure speculation," Tavares said. "Second, his return certainly raised eyebrows, but it was not orchestrated in any way. Roy Mlakar [Ottawa president] and Rod Bryden [Ottawa chairman] know it was above board."

However, Tavares acknowledged, "There were complex issues with Pierre leaving Ottawa."

The bottom line, according to Tavares: "Is someone that great and that bright going to do something that obvious?"

The question has been raised again and again since Gauthier tearfully announced his resignation in Ottawa, however.

Gauthier said family concerns were at the root of his decision to quit. He would take some time off, explore life away from hockey, then think about returning at some point in the future.

And, oh, by the way, he and the family were returning to the Irvine residence they had owned since he was originally hired by the Ducks in 1993.

When Gauthier accepted the job as Duck president--effectively replacing Tavares--only 17 days later, the pique of fans and reporters in Ottawa was remarkable.

Mlakar, who did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story, was portrayed as naive and stupid.

"Roy Malarkey," the Ottawa Sun's Chris Stevenson called him. "He let his successful general manager make what amounts to a lateral move and didn't get a blessed thing for him. Teams have extracted first-round draft picks from other teams in exchange for coaches or general managers in the past.

"This time? Nada. Zip."

It was one thing when Gauthier said on June 29, "I'm not going to Anaheim to work for the Mighty Ducks. I don't have the right to steal anybody's job, certainly not the job of one of my best friends [then Duck GM Jack Ferreira]."

And quite another when he appeared with Tavares and Ferreira at a July 16 news conference announcing his hiring in Anaheim. Three weeks later, he made matters worse in Ottawa by announcing he would replace Ferreira as Duck general manager.

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