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Duck 'Joke' Since Becomes a Fond Memory for Hebert

October 14, 2002|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

The first time Guy Hebert heard Disney had named its new hockey team the Mighty Ducks, after one of its movies, he laughed. "I thought it was a joke," he said.

Little did he know the team would become a box office and commercial success -- and a huge part of his life.

Hebert, a backup goaltender with the St. Louis Blues, was the first player chosen by the Ducks in the 1993 NHL expansion draft and played for them until he was claimed on waivers by the New York Rangers in March 2001. He joined several teammates from the Ducks' inaugural season for a reunion Sunday at the Pond, swapping stories and chuckles before the Ducks played the first home game of their 10th season.

"Ten years of my life have just flown by," said Hebert, who was born in upstate New York and lives with his family in Newport Beach. "I'm glad to say I was part of the team for eight of those years. It's my 10th year of being out here, being a California guy.

"There have been a lot of ups and downs for the team and the organization, but 10 years for a franchise in any sport, you're still really in the fledgling stage. They've taken some steps backward a few years ago, but hopefully they're making up for it. I've stopped by the rink a few times and the atmosphere is good."

No one knew what to expect at first, least of all the players. Hockey traditionalists warned that Disney would throw money at free agents and buy the Stanley Cup, and pressure the NHL to adopt the shootout proposal advocated by Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner. Not so. Fiscally, Disney was -- and is -- conservative, and Eisner did little beyond lead cheers and slap backs the first few seasons.

And while purists mocked the team's name and marketing strategies, Duck merchandise was the top seller in professional sports for several years and the team filled at least 98.8% of its seats its first five seasons.

The tone was set the first season. Devoid of scoring talent, the Ducks were scrappy. Todd Ewen -- who had a team-high 272 penalty minutes but illustrated children's books in his spare time -- and strongman Stu "the Grim Reaper" Grimson (199 penalty minutes) were cult heroes. Terry Yake, a small center taken from Hartford in the expansion draft, led the team with 21 goals and 52 points. They made opponents work for every inch of ice, which the fans loved.

"One of my fondest memories was our very first game against Detroit," Hebert said. "They were still putting things together and there was no player parking and the guy at the arena was trying to charge me $8 to park. I showed him my player pass but he didn't know what to do.

"I pulled in at 5 for a 7:30 game, and it was like a football game. There were cookouts and people were drinking beer in the parking lots. I was thinking, 'Oh my God, where am I?' It wasn't like that in St. Louis."

Captained by Troy Loney and led by the goaltending tandem of Hebert and Ron Tugnutt, the Ducks earned a share of the record for most victories by a first-year team (33) and set a record for a first-year team with 19 road victories. Coach Ron Wilson refused to use the term expansion team because he didn't want players to use the team's newness as an excuse to lose. The psychology worked, leading players to raise their standards.

"We had a ton of fan support, and that certainly helped a young team. It was exciting and Ron did a great job," said Hebert, who earned the team's first shutout, a 1-0 victory at Toronto on Dec. 15, 1993. "We might not have had the best team, but he kept guys motivated and made it fun. I don't care what kind of job you're in, you have to have fun, and that was sorely missing around this team the last few years."

The Ducks peaked in 1996-97, when they defeated Phoenix in their first playoff series and took the Detroit Red Wings to overtime three times before being swept in the second round. They made the playoffs in 1998-99 but were swept by Detroit.

By then, however, they were no longer a novelty. Their competitive, hard-working character had been lost, and management alienated fans by raising ticket prices every year. An ego battle between Wilson and then-team president Tony Tavares led to Wilson's firing after the 1996-97 season and set off a revolving door of coaches and front-office executives. Attendance dwindled and the team foundered.

"The stumbling block came in the year Ron wasn't retained and they got rid of five or six veteran players," Hebert said. "They took a couple of steps back as a franchise and have really never recovered."

Hebert said he deliberately stayed away while Pierre Gauthier was the Ducks' general manager but has felt welcome since Gauthier was fired and Bryan Murray took over. Hebert offered to help the Ducks with community and promotional work and agreed to head the team's new alumni association.

"In a sense I feel I didn't complete because I didn't accomplish what I set out to do -- to win the Cup," Hebert said. "I've talked to Paul [Kariya] and [Steve Rucchin] and they want to get this thing. And if they do, I'll be on there, on the bandwagon, in the locker room. Hopefully people will look at the team and see the positive things that have gone on. They just need a shot of confidence."

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