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NHL PREVIEW: MIGHTY DUCKS

Pinning Hopes on Face-Lift

Hockey: Anaheim turns to new coach, general manager, marquee players and even fan-friendly policies in makeover bid.

October 08, 2002|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A large banner draped on the Arrowhead Pond has a not-so cryptic message for Mighty Duck fans.

"A New Decade Begins," is what it says.

"Under New Management," is what it means.

Certainly team officials, with their "A Mighty Decade" sales pitch, are going to great lengths to convince people that life is going to be different at the NHL's emptiest arena. In fact, they are so eager to present the "new Ducks" that they are ready to call it a decade after only nine seasons.

Math aside, there are stirrings from a franchise that finished last in the Pacific Division, last on the power play and last in attendance last season.

On the ice, General Manager Bryan Murray, who replaced the deposed Pierre Gauthier last spring, got the attention of the remaining fans by retooling the Ducks on the fly. He made marquee moves, signing Adam Oates and Fredrik Olausson and trading for Petr Sykora. He also hired Mike Babcock as coach, showing enough confidence to entrust these changes to a man who has never coached or played in the NHL.

In the front office, Murray did Bob Villa-like work in renovating the organization's infrastructure, from the Disney Ice training facility to the computer system to the scouting department.

At the fan front, Doug Moss, hired as the senior vice president of business operations, reduced some season-ticket prices and has installed a fan-friendly environment not experienced at the Pond in years.

Of course, these changes will mean so much more should the Ducks actually win a few more games. That quest begins Thursday at St. Louis in the regular-season opener. Without on-ice improvement, the off-season becomes little more than a new coat of paint on a tumbledown shack.

Still, after a mighty painful decade, Duck fans can look to one important addition: hope.

"There is a whole new attitude here," center Matt Cullen said. "Guys aren't walking around nervous, looking over their shoulder. There has been a commitment to the team."

Whether it's a long-term commitment or merely a little spit and polish to lure a buyer is unknown. The Ducks, like the Angels, are being shopped around and the price has been reduced to the red-tag area of $100-million, hockey sources say.

A run for a playoff spot would certainly attract attention, as it did with the Disney-owned Angels. Disney CEO Michael Eisner, mum for more than two years about the hockey team he founded, may even agree to be digitally added to the team photo, as he did in every season after the first until disappearing after the 1995-96 photo.

But, before fiddling with Eisner's image, the Ducks have to work on their own. Since digitally adding themselves to the playoffs was impossible, the Ducks had to change.

That started with the firing of Gauthier and then kept coming, from the signing of Oates to the hiring of a full-time strength coach, Shawn Skahan, to bringing in Moss, who has spent the summer trying to mend fences with apathetic fans and unhappy sponsors.

The fans have made their message clear. The Ducks had the 21 smallest crowds in franchise history last season. Moss' first response after being hired last spring was to cut season-ticket prices on 9,053 seats in the 17,174-seat Pond. The team also gave the Pond's standing-room-only areas to the adjacent suite owners.

There have also been minor, but unprecedented, policy changes. Fans now are allowed to bring signs into games, providing the messages fall within the boundaries of good taste. They are also permitted to watch pregame warmups and to tailgate in the parking lot before games. Practices are open to the public.

"We want the home-ice advantage," Moss said. "What we are trying to tell the fans is, we appreciate them. We want to go above and beyond to show them that."

The tinkering on hockey's ultimate fixer-upper was extensive, with Disney providing the home-improvement loan. The Ducks' player payroll tops $40 million for the first time in franchise history but the spending went beyond on-ice talent.

Murray added five scouts and hired Chuck Fletcher as director of hockey operations. The Ducks arranged an exclusive arrangement to run minor league Cincinnati, which they shared with Detroit the last six seasons. Disney also spent $250,000 modernizing the team's training facility.

Moss was brought in to run the business side in Disney's two-headed approach to sports franchise management. He hired 10 new staffers and is hiring a marketing director to work for the Ducks exclusively. Since buying the Angels in 1996, Disney has used one marketing director for both teams.

"We wanted to show the players we really cared and were not satisfied," Murray said. "That Disney was not satisfied and wanted to do things to make the team better."

There certainly was room for improvement. The Ducks finished 26 points out of a playoff spot.

"I felt there had be changes made, period," Murray said. "When a team doesn't perform to a level, making changes stimulates a lot of interest in players and provides motivation."

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