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MIGHTY DUCKS '98-'99

Historical Keeper

Hebert, the Original Duck, Has Been Steady in Good Times and Bad

October 06, 1998|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The joke was funny the first time. The Mighty Ducks? A real NHL club, full of skaters and goalies and goons, inheriting its nickname from a sweet and cuddly kiddie movie?

The joke wasn't so funny the second time. The Mighty Ducks? A real NHL club suffocating the euphoria of its playoff debut by firing the popular coach?

Guy Hebert could handle the nickname, grinning his way through a working life that required him to wear the bill of a duck on his chest. The abrupt coaching change that pushed the team toward disaster last season? Hebert believes he and the Ducks deserved better, after four years of blood and sweat and duck calls.

"Definitely, the high point was being able to go to the playoffs," Hebert said, "and having a little bit of success.

"Then the floor fell out from underneath us."

Paul Kariya or Teemu Selanne may be the mightiest Duck of them all, but Hebert is the original, the first Anaheim selection in the 1993 expansion draft.

Hebert, 31, in goal in good times and bad, fondly recalls the thrills of 1997, when expansion follies gave way to playoff excitement. The Ducks posted their first winning season, won their first playoff series when Hebert shut out the Phoenix Coyotes in a deciding seventh game and, in the second round, extended the eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings to overtime three times before succumbing in four games.

On May 8, 1997, the Ducks lost in double overtime, ending a fantastic season. Twelve days later, the Ducks fired Coach Ron Wilson, for reasons to this day unexplained by Anaheim Sports President Tony Tavares.

"I think we had this great thing going with Ron Wilson [and assistant coaches] Tim Army and Walt Kyle. We had a great group of guys," Hebert said. "When we finished that year, we were headed in the right direction.

"Then there were a lot of changes. We brought in a lot of guys. It really upset the balance, from a player's perspective. You go from being fourth in the conference to 25th in the league. It's definitely a drop."

Wilson was replaced by Pierre Page, who was replaced by Craig Hartsburg. And so on, through the summers of 1997 and '98: Army was replaced by Don Hay, who was replaced by Newell Brown. Kyle was replaced by George Burnett. General Manager Jack Ferreira was replaced by Pierre Gauthier.

All for no good reason, as Hebert sees it.

"That's my humble opinion," Hebert said. "How can you think otherwise? Certainly, we were on the right track. I went home that summer [of '97] thinking, if we pick up one or two key guys, we're really looking good for next year."

Instead, the Ducks finished last season with the worst record in their five seasons. Gauthier cited injuries, including the shoulder injury that eventually forced Hebert to undergo reconstructive surgery and the concussion that sidelined Kariya. The Ducks and Kariya also stared down each other in a contract dispute that cost the team its captain for the first 10 weeks of the season.

Could the players rally themselves? Apparently not, Hebert said, in a season in which instability in the executive suite and coaching offices spread to the dressing room.

"We lacked leadership last year," Hebert said. "When veterans walk into the locker room and they're afraid they can get traded by that afternoon, there's not going to be a lot of leadership. You can't blame guys when that happens."

On that score, Hebert praises the work of Gauthier, the former assistant under Ferreira and the former general manager of the Ottawa Senators. In his first month as the Ducks' general manager, Gauthier traded defenseman David Karpa to the Carolina Hurricanes for defenseman Kevin Haller and enforcer--and original Duck--Stu Grimson. Gauthier also signed free-agent defenseman Fredrik Olausson, another Duck alum.

"I see people say the Ducks are in turmoil," Hebert said. "But Pierre Gauthier was here before, and he did a great job in Ottawa. Pierre's great at recognizing the fact teams need to have chemistry.

"You bring in people that might not be the best right wing in the league, but they bring a lot of great things into the locker room."

For Hebert, they bring back memories too.

"It's nice to see guys coming back," he said. "I'd turn around and say, 'Remember that?' and none of the guys were here to remember that."

Wilson won last year, of course. The Washington Capitals hired him within weeks of the Ducks firing him, and Wilson led the Capitals to the Stanley Cup finals.

But Hebert won too, simply in joining the Ducks. Hebert, a backup to Curtis Joseph when the Ducks drafted him from the St. Louis Blues, emerged as a regular and then a star in Anaheim, rendering Ron Tugnutt and Mikhail Shtalenkov expendable and earning a spot on the 1998 U.S. Olympic team.

His career save percentage (.909) ranks fourth among active NHL goalies. Dominik Hasek of the Buffalo Sabres, the two-time winner of the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player, leads with a .924 percentage, followed by Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils and Chris Osgood of the Detroit Red Wings.

"I love it in Anaheim," Hebert said. "I'd love to stay here the rest of my career, and I've let that be known to the people in the front office. It's been a great situation for me."

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