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We Hardly Got to Know Gauthier

Diane Pucin

April 20, 2002|Diane Pucin

Pierre Gauthier was fired Friday.

Does anybody care? Does anybody know who he is? If he sat down next to you at the movies, a restaurant, a Mighty Duck game, would you know him?

Mighty Ducks. That's the clue.

Gauthier was the president and general manager of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, a hockey team that was once a cultural milestone, an athletic team created from a movie that became cool and hip because its colors were neato and its name was funny and because Disney knew how to market so that a movie team and a real team melded into a single team. This team filled an arena for years.

Now it doesn't.

The Pond doesn't rock anymore when the Ducks play. A season passed and we barely noticed.

This wasn't all Gauthier's fault. He is just the best example of what is wrong with the Ducks.

Gauthier made absolutely no impact on Orange County hockey fans in his four-year tenure. He was not part of the community in any noticeable way. He was anonymous. He tended to make statements that weren't true, in the sense that soon after he'd said something wouldn't happen, it happened.

For instance, Gauthier said he wouldn't think about firing his coach. Then a month later, Craig Hartsburg was fired. He also said he'd never consider trading the team's two superstars, Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. Then, a month or so later, Selanne was traded and the die-hards of the dwindling Duck fan base became rightly nervous about Kariya's future in Anaheim.

Gauthier came here from Ottawa with a reputation as a fiscally responsible, talent-savvy builder of teams. He was given credit by his new bosses for building Ottawa into a low-payroll, high-achievement playoff team and for being a key part of the early Mighty Duck success as an assistant general manager in the early 1990s.

It was a triumphant homecoming and Gauthier was supposed to shrewdly snap up underappreciated, underpaid complementary parts to go with Kariya and Selanne. And then Kariya and Selanne would charm the nation with their brilliant speed and passing and scoring skills, the role players would come along for the ride and the Ducks would be big winners.

This plan resulted in the Ducks finishing 25 points out of the playoffs this season, a finish billed as a success by management because it was an improvement over last season. Attendance dropped continuously during Gauthier's time here. When he arrived in 1998, an average of 17,068 went to the Pond. This season, it was 12,002. Since the Ducks sneaked into the playoffs during Gauthier's first season, they have missed postseason play three straight times. The last two seasons, the playoffs weren't even a dream by December.

A wiseacre suggested that since Disney is never averse to saving money on its sports franchises, and since Angel General Manager Bill Stoneman played in Montreal, and since hockey is pretty important in Montreal, maybe Stoneman could be GM of both the Angels and Ducks, Stoneman, after all, being pretty good at being an anonymous boss of a bad team. So how hard would it be to be the boss of two bad teams?

But the Ducks aren't a joke. Nor are the Angels.

What they are quickly becoming is invisible.

There's nothing worse for a sports franchise than to be uncared about. Angry fans are better than uninterested fans. And the Ducks and Angels are quickly becoming not worth caring about.

How can a Duck fan be angry anymore? What's the point?

When Gauthier came to Anaheim, he said he had a plan. It would take three or four years of wise drafting and astute scouting. But with Kariya and Selanne as the base, what Duck fans would get would be a team built for longevity and several years of playoff success.

What they got was a team that grew progressively worse.

Paul Pressler, chairman of Disney's Parks and Resorts division, the man in charge of the Ducks and Angels, said Friday, "We felt we needed to have new leadership to get into the Stanley Cup playoffs. We need a man with fantastic leadership skills and a great hockey eye. It's very clear our fans are disappointed. I'm disappointed."

Pressler said he grew up an avid fan of the New York Rangers and that he is, in fact, still a Ranger fan unless the Rangers are playing the Ducks. So Pressler knows about fans who care. He knows that the Rangers' model--paying big money for any big star (see Eric Lindros)--did not work. The Rangers aren't in the playoffs, either.

But the Ducks need to make a big move. The Ducks need scoring. Selanne is available again. Bobby Holik is available. Maybe it's not the Disney way and maybe it's not even the smart way, but the Ducks need to make a statement, an extravagant one.

Firing Gauthier isn't extravagant. If this news weren't in the papers, no one would ever miss him. But signing a high-priced, established scoring star is extravagant. The fans would care about that. And they need something to care about. While there are still fans out there to care at all.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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