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Ducks' Bandwagon Is Still Skating Along

Fans return to the fold, team merchandise flies off shelves, TV ratings are strong. One good- luck charm comes to the games in an urn.

June 07, 2003|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

Listen closely at Arrowhead Pond tonight and you might hear Richard Chavez shouting something surprisingly hockey-literate.

"I was, at best, a marginal fan a year ago, probably like a lot of people in Southern California," said Chavez, one of Anaheim's newest council members.

"But I've found myself yelling at the refs, saying, 'Hey! That's icing!' Or, 'They high- sticked 'em!' A year ago, I didn't know what the heck that really was."

Now he can't get enough of those Mighty Ducks, who are nearing the end of a season few could have imagined. They squeaked into the playoffs, knocked off the reigning Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings and continued their improbable playoff run through Dallas and then Minnesota. Tonight, they must win Game 6 of the finals against the New Jersey Devils to stay alive.

Though Orange County has little in common with Northern cities where hockey flourishes, the sport has rapidly gained fans here in recent weeks. In the last month, merchandise sales have skyrocketed. TV ratings for the Stanley Cup finals, though dismal overall, are the highest ever for the Los Angeles market. And dozens of former season-ticket holders who were tired of watching the Ducks lose have scrambled back to join the flock.

Mike Ferraro, 46, of Irvine gave up his season tickets a couple years ago when the Ducks seemed to have fallen through the ice. It was a matter of simple economics.

"I didn't want to spend over $10,000 a year for season tickets," said Ferraro, a season-ticket holder for seven years. "I didn't like the product."

Every year since, a Ducks' sales rep would come calling. Thanks, but no thanks, Ferraro would say. But this year, when it appeared the Ducks would make the playoffs, they offered him access to postseason tickets -- including tickets to the Stanley Cup finals. All he had to do was put down a two-seat deposit for next year.

"They're a good, young team that made improvements, made trades," Ferraro said. "I figured, 'What the heck, I'd like to go to the playoffs.' I did not expect a run to the Stanley Cup. ... I'm thankful for the phone call."

All told, more than 1,300 people have put down deposits for next year -- including more than 100 lapsed season-ticket holders, Ducks officials said.

Fans also are snatching up merchandise, everything from duck calls to commemorative pucks to $200 jerseys. Sales have been so brisk, NHL officials said, that the Ducks' post-season run will likely catapult them from the bottom third in sales to the top 10 among the league's 30 teams.

Still, sports business consultant David M. Carter warned fans about getting too hooked on the Ducks because the NHL's future is muddied by television negotiations and a possible labor impasse.

"The NHL is in such financial disrepair right now that it almost doesn't matter how exciting play is," Carter said. "The sport is really at the brink of a pretty significant financial crisis."

He likened the Ducks' success to a cliff-side house with a beautiful view, "but we all know it's going to fall into the ocean."

Fans, however, seem intent on savoring the moment.

"I never expected them to get this far," said Barbara Durell of Anaheim. "If this is as far as they get, I'm happy. They exceeded my expectations."

That's not to say she's not hoping for two more victories. And she's willing to do just about anything to make sure it happens.

Durell, a season-ticket holder from the beginning of the 10-year-old franchise, has resorted to bringing a good-luck charm to the games. And, well, that would be her dead brother Tom. He died in 1998 and his ashes were divided among her parents, herself and her surviving brother.

Most of the time, Tom's ashes sit on her mantle in a small, metal container that fits in her hand. Tom wasn't much of a sports fan, but when the Angels made it to the playoffs last fall, she wanted some extra luck -- so she grabbed Tom. Clearly, she said, it worked. The Angels won the World Series.

When the Ducks advanced to the playoffs, she knew Tom liked cold weather, and figured he'd enjoy the chill inside the Pond.

"He's undefeated," Durell said. "The only game we lost at home -- the Dallas game -- I didn't bring him. I forgot, screwed up or whatever."

Not tonight. Durell will be rubbing Tom's urn like a genie's bottle, wishing for one more magical game.

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