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STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

The Reanimator

Rookie GM Murray has transformed Ducks from cartoonish failures into surprising, and smiling, Stanley Cup finalists

May 18, 2003|Elliott Teaford | Times Staff Writer

Man saves team.

Man's team saves his hometown.

If not for the fact that the upstart Mighty Ducks had reached the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and were locked in a five-overtime marathon against the Dallas Stars on the night of April 24, one Canadian town might no longer exist.

When the fourth-longest game in NHL history ended at about 1:30 a.m. local time, a group of bar patrons in the tiny hamlet of Shawville finally put down their drinks, switched off the TV and happily headed home.

That's when someone noticed the local milling company's office was ablaze and called the fire department.

"It's in what is the downtown area," Duck General Manager Bryan Murray said of the most exciting thing to happen to his hometown in years. "The mill is beside it. There's a three- or four-story tire store next to that. It's a small village and almost everything in that part of town is attached to the building next door. The fire could have spread. It's not like it's a bustling town at that time of the morning."

And that's how the Ducks saved Shawville, an English-speaking village of 2,000 residents located well inside French-speaking Quebec, an hour's drive north of the national capital, Ottawa.

How Murray breathed life into the Ducks is more complicated and takes longer to tell, but is no less dramatic.

Murray retooled the Ducks' wafer-thin roster and padded the payroll by about $5 million to around $45 million. He put his faith in rookie Coach Mike Babcock, upgraded the weight room and locker facilities at the team's training facility and went to work on boosting the organization's morale.

He wanted smiles to replace frowns at what had become the unhappiest place in Anaheim. And if upsetting the higher-seeded Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild en route to the franchise's first Stanley Cup finals appearance is any indication, he has succeeded beyond measure.

A team-record 95 points and a second-place finish in the Pacific Division during the regular season only hinted at what was to come in the playoffs.

One season after finishing 13th in the 15-team Western Conference and missing the playoffs for the seventh time in their nine-season existence, the Ducks are a mere four victories away from hoisting Lord Stanley's cherished cup. They await the winner of the Eastern Conference finals between the New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators. The Devils lead, three games to one.

"It's been tough to dispel the myth that Disney doesn't care," said Murray, a former coach and general manager with the Florida Panthers, Red Wings and Washington Capitals. "I made changes for Paul Kariya, for Jiggy [Jean-Sebastien Giguere] and for Rooch [Steve Rucchin]. I had to show them I was going to make things different for them. We sent a message to the fans to come back and see us play. It's taken a while, but with our success in the playoffs, we're able to sell them on the future as well. Part of the reasons we made changes was to show the players and the fans that we were trying to do something."

At Kariya's urging, Murray signed veteran playmaker Adam Oates as a free agent last summer. Murray also traded for Rob Niedermayer, Sandis Ozolinsh, Petr Sykora and Steve Thomas in separate deals that cost him only draft picks and/or unproductive players. By season's end, there were 12 new players on the roster from the end of 2001-02.

Suddenly, there is depth beyond the first forward line and the top defense pair, with recognizable names and faces on the ice instead of untested youngsters or past-their-prime veterans.

"I couldn't have, in all good consciousness, gone and made the deals if I didn't have the goaltender," Murray said, referring to Giguere, who has been as impenetrable as a brick wall. "We had some guys last season who would never score. They were just players. When you're building a team you have to define roles and give guys a chance to prove themselves."

That's a winning method of operation, according to ESPN analyst Bill Clement, a Stanley Cup champion with the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s.

"Bryan has a great way of empowering people and making them understand their importance to the organization," Clement said. "He's made shrewd hockey moves and he has the people skills that are lacking in so many organizations. He's provided the Ducks with all the right tangible and intangible ingredients. To have the team jump out of the cake and say, 'Here we are,' has been great."

By all accounts, former general manager Pierre Gauthier treated everyone in the organization the same -- poorly.

To his credit, Gauthier did hire Murray as the team's coach on May 25, 2001 and acquired Giguere from the Calgary Flames on June 10, 2000, but there were many more instances in which his moves backfired and his handling of team employees seemed unduly harsh.

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