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Helene Elliott ON THE NHL

Reaching Out Across the Pond

March 18, 2003|Helene Elliott

Guy Hebert hears it every time he enters the Arrowhead Pond.

Fans who filled the arena during the Mighty Ducks' first five seasons, when the team played to 99.3% of capacity, tell the former Duck goaltender they were driven away by bad teams and callous management. They were lied to. Their favorite players were traded. The team was as disorganized as the front office.

Some have returned to see the restructuring carried out by General Manager Bryan Murray, but for many, bruised feelings and skepticism linger.

"When you lose focus, it takes a lot to have them come back," said Hebert, a radio analyst for the Ducks. "I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and talked to me about the trials and tribulations with this team over the last few years. With what the fans had to deal with, it was enough to drive people to say, 'I'm going to save my money until there's a better product.'

"I think there's people that maybe want to come back, but, much like the Angels, they need to be sure the team is going to be a winner."

The Ducks, all but assured of a playoff spot, averaged 13,781 fans at their first 38 home games, up from last season's 12,002. They've announced five sellouts, up from three last season, and expect full houses March 30 and April 4.

Yet, even when the attendance is announced as 13,000 or more, clusters of seats remain empty. Like most NHL teams, the Ducks announce the number of tickets sold, not tickets used, and the discrepancy is obvious.

"I'm kind of disappointed in the fans," said Ron Wilson, who coached the Ducks during their first four seasons and was fired in the first of many management missteps. "I think they're trying to win here. With the management team they have in place, they're not being cheap.

"The fans are going to be disappointed. They're missing something special. You never know how far this team can go in the playoffs. They have scoring, speed and great goaltending. They should be getting more support."

The shaky economy is a big reason seats are empty. In response, the Ducks push group sales and family packages on Sundays, when fans can participate in pregame activities, such as face painting and sign making, and test their hockey skills.

"We've tried to go back to more of a traditional hockey atmosphere and I think we're creating that," said Charles Harris, the club's director of publicity and community development.

Hebert remembers those first seasons, when fans took the hard-working Ducks to heart and the team fed off the fans' energy and achieved more than it should have.

"I'm looking forward to the playoffs, with a full building, and seeing how many faces I recognize from those days. And seeing new fans," Hebert said. "I went to some Angel games last August and there were maybe 20,000 people there. By the time they made the playoffs, I was pulling all the strings I had left to get tickets. People were biding their time, and I think we have that here too."

Iggy Pop

Hoping to make the playoffs for the first time since 1996, the Calgary Flames couldn't afford to trade Jarome Iginla. But there may come a day when they can't afford not to trade him.

Iginla, who led the NHL last season with 52 goals and 96 points, was mentioned in countless rumors before last Tuesday's trading deadline. However, Calgary General Manager Craig Button said he had no intention of parting with Iginla, who will earn $5.5 million this season and $7 million next season.

"One player isn't a franchise. We have a team, and my focus is on making the Calgary Flames as good as we can, and Jarome is an important part of that," Button said. "Players like Jarome Iginla are rare. For us to trade him, we'd have to come out the other side with a trade that was really positive, and that's difficult to do."

Button must find ways for the Flames to thrive, not merely survive, while balancing competitive and economic interests that often clash. Most of the club's revenues are in Canadian dollars and most of its expenses, such as payroll, are paid in U.S. dollars. The values fluctuate but one U.S. dollar was worth about $1.48 Canadian on Monday. Each time the value of the Canadian dollar changes a penny, Button said, his club's U.S. payroll changes by $600,000 Canadian.

Like the Edmonton Oilers, the Flames get about $3.5 million (U.S.) a year from the NHL's Canadian Assistance Program. That will pay half of Iginla's salary next season.

"Or five $700,000 players, depending on how you do it," said Button, whose team plays the Kings tonight at Staples Center. "When we signed [Iginla] last year, we went into it with our eyes open. We knew what type of player and what type of person we were getting. He makes what he makes. What we have to do is find a way to build a successful team around him....

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