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A Career Rescued From Thin Ice

Hockey: After dreadful 1997-98 season, refocused Sandstrom emerges as a key player for the Ducks.


Tomas Sandstrom was the poster boy for the Mighty Ducks' failures last season. There were high hopes and expectations, but nothing worked out as planned and the Ducks plummeted to the depths of the standings.

He didn't produce goals or assists. He lost his taste for the rough stuff in the corners and in front of the net. He was a downer in the dressing room, unable or unwilling to tutor the rookies when the Ducks went to a youth movement down the stretch.

At least, those were the knocks against Sandstrom last season.

Five games into the new season, there has been nothing but praise for the 34-year-old Sandstrom.

After spending the summer whipping himself into shape, Sandstrom has emerged as a vital part of the Ducks' newfound depth this season. Sandstrom, playing with center Travis Green and rookie left wing Johan Davidsson on the second line, no longer looks as if he's headed for the slag heap after a standout 14-season NHL career.

"I feel there's a lot of great hockey left in him," Coach Craig Hartsburg said. "So far, he's been the player I always thought he was. He's smart and very intense. I don't know what happened last year with Tomas, but I know he's been a great player in this league.

"To me, he's back to what he's always been--a great two-way player."

Sandstrom's teammates also have noticed a change. Heck, even the fans at the Arrowhead Pond have noticed, cheering him when he hammered Boston Bruin defenseman Grant Ledyard against the boards in the first period Wednesday.

Sandstrom's check triggered the sequence that set up the Ducks' first goal in their 3-0 victory. Sandstrom also scored the game-winning goal in the Ducks' 5-3 victory Oct. 15 over the Chicago Blackhawks.

That's encouraging news to right wing Teemu Selanne, who shouldered the Ducks' scoring burden at times last season.

Selanne said he could see Sandstrom's confidence eroding last season. He now believes it has returned.

"We need all the depth we can get," said Selanne, the NHL co-leader with 52 goals last season. "Sandstrom is flying out there. He's really happy. It's really important he shows up every night. He's an important leader for us. This year, he's so much more excited. You can just see it."

To be sure, Sandstrom's poor play had a great deal to do with the Ducks' slide last season. But it's unfair to pin all the blame on the right winger.

Too much went wrong--starting with captain Paul Kariya's prolonged absences, first, because of a contract dispute and, later, because of post-concussion syndrome. Injuries to other key players, including goaltender Guy Hebert, also played a role in the Ducks' 12th-place finish in the 13-team Western Conference.

But Sandstrom, who signed with the Ducks as a free agent in the summer of 1997, seemed to be a lightning rod for criticism last season.

Then-coach Pierre Page demoted Sandstrom, a former 100-point scorer, to the checking line. When that didn't produce the desired results, Page simply benched Sandstrom. Page's moves did nothing to bolster Sandstrom's confidence, and his play slipped further.

By season's end, Sandstrom had only nine goals and 17 points in a team-leading 77 games. At one point, he went 34 consecutive games without scoring a goal.

The Ducks weren't demanding 35 goals and 100 points, but Sandstrom's totals were unacceptable.

No one had to tell Sandstrom. He knew.

"I had a [bad] year last year," he said. "The only way to bounce back was to work hard."

First, Sandstrom had to decide he wanted to bounce back. He called a family meeting upon returning to Sweden last summer. Retirement, life after hockey was the topic of discussion.

"The thought crossed my mind," Sandstrom said.

He won't come right out and say it publicly, but what helped make Sandstrom's decision to return to Anaheim easier was the firing of Page on June 15. It was no secret that Sandstrom and Page did not get along.

"Do you really want me to be honest?" Sandstrom said when asked about what prompted him to come back this season.

"Right after the season, I decided, 'I've got to go home and work out.' I took about two or three weeks off, then went right at it. I worked as hard as I could. I'd say it was one of the hardest summers I've ever had."

Sandstrom lost 15 pounds, adopted a strict diet, welcomed the news that Hartsburg had been hired to replace Page, then tried his best to bury the past.

As the summer days passed, Sandstrom worked himself into shape. He figured last season was a poor way to go out. Right from the start of training camp last month, Sandstrom acknowledged his embarrassment over last season.

"For sure," he said. "I've never been a guy to look at my stats. It's a team game, but . . . "

But with career lows in goals and points, Sandstrom had accomplished little expected of him.

"Some games, I barely played," he said. "It's tough if you don't get ice time."

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