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Improbables on Ice

May 17, 2003

After weeks of war, tax cut fights and preseason Democratic presidential exhibitions, anyone avoiding the National Hockey League playoffs is missing a most refreshing spring inspiration. Of the final four teams, three were recent expansions and two were underdog longshots, including the once anything-but-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

Could this be a replay of last fall's World Series, when the once sad-sack, overlooked Anaheim Angels surged to the title? Can the Ducks continue a dominance that so easily crushed higher seeds Detroit and Dallas and now the Minnesota Wild?

How'd the expansion Wild players, only three seasons from being the athletic discards of other teams, make such come-from-behind playoff history under a wily coach with eight championship rings? Can the Ottawa Senators, seeking a new owner after years of on-ice stumbling and now financial bankruptcy, salvage Canadian pride and win the Stanley Cup? Or will New Jersey's aptly named Devils capture the Cup as they did not so long ago before firing the guy now coaching the Wild?

These two months of playoffs, probably the most grueling in pro sports, have produced incredible moments of individual athleticism. There is, for instance, no way the Ducks' castoff goalie with the hyphenated name and rubbery legs should have so consistently stopped so many opposition shots. But Jean-Sebastien Giguere has. No NHL team ever before has twice climbed back from 3-1 game deficits in one year's playoff series. But the Wild did under Jacques Lemaire, alternating goalies and using their no-name roster to stifle more talented Colorado and Vancouver. It has all unfolded during 19 sudden-death overtimes, including one epic Ducks' struggle (now there's a new combination of words!) that went five OT periods.

And what fun too, during this time of global religious and secular strife, to see so many disparate players gel into cohesive winners. Take Disney's Ducks, longtime lackluster losers, still for sale, who under creative new management have welded 12 Canadians, four Swedes, trios of Russians and Americans, one Czech, a Swiss, Belarusan, Ukrainian, Latvian and even an Englishman into one impressive team. Or the Wild, which encompassed (besides Canadians) two Slovaks, three Americans, a Russian, Latvian, Finn, Czech, and Richard Park, a South Korean native who grew up in Brea.

The incongruous emergence of sunny Southern California as a producer of American ice hockey talent, including recent national youth champions, is due in part to so much hockey wisdom retired to a sunny clime and now available to coach indoors on year-round ice. Hockey and brotherhood in the same paragraph. California kids excelling on ice. The mighty Mighty Ducks driving for a championship. Talk about upset!

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