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To Win the Stanley Cup, Ducks Will Need to Use Some More Elbow Grease

Bill Plaschke

May 29, 2003|Bill Plaschke

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — In his brief tenure as Emilio Estevez's stand-in and Ron Wilson's encore, Mike Babcock has made many contributions to the Southern California puck culture, the slickest being an expression pulled right out of his oil-refinery hair.

"Greasy hockey."

That's how the Mighty Duck coach describes his philosophy, and he describes plenty.

He preaches it to his players. He recites it to the media. He has imprinted it on the season.

"Greasy hockey."

Babcock blamed it for Tuesday's opening loss here in the Stanley Cup finals to the New Jersey Devils.

"We never got any grease on us," he said.

His players are relying on it for a victory in Game 2 tonight.

"We intend to be a little more greasy," Steve Rucchin said.

It's an interesting, intriguing, perhaps even inspirational bromide, with only one problem.

What the heck does it mean?

We know about greasy spoons. The swamps around the Meadowlands are filled with greasy spoons. A colleague was recently served coffee in a cup smeared with lipstick. When he complained, the waitress asked, "What, not your color?"

Paul Kariya knows about greased lightning. Dan Bylsma knows about grease boards. Few athletes have skated through their careers like Brian Griese.

But greasy hockey?

"I've never heard it before in my life," the Devils' Scott Gomez said. "Does it mean you want to play gross hockey?"

It could be that. The Ducks would certainly qualify.

Many are wearing team-bonding playoff beards that could pass for freeway shrubbery and should be serviced at Jiffy Lube.

Rucchin's face is cultivating a form of plant life known as "used Brillo pad." Jean-Sebastien Giguere is introducing America to the concept of hockey player as werewolf. Surely he's gettin' itchy with it.

"Yeah, we all do crazy things in the playoffs," Steve Thomas said. "I looked over at Rob Niedermayer the other day and he was scratching it and scratching it and ... ugh."

Greasy hockey, indeed.

Is this what Babcock means?

"Or," Gomez said, "maybe it means boring hockey."

Could be. The arena contained empty seats Tuesday, perhaps because the Ducks were considered such a dull foe.

They have been outshot in 14 of their 15 playoff games. Their most famous player wears a mask. Their best player wears handcuffs.

Some have said they resemble the 2001 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, but those guys had only one Trent Dilfer. The Ducks have two dozen.

So, yeah, maybe greasy is boring, and boring is good?

"I still have no idea what that means," Devil Grant Marshall said.

In the Duck dressing room, the players acknowledged to being initially just as confused.

Said 19-year veteran Thomas: "I had never heard it before, it's a bit of a different term."

Added 11-year veteran Sandis Ozolinsh: "Mike said a lot of words I needed a dictionary for. That was one of them."

But eventually, they say, they understood. Given the last month or so, we should believe them.

Greasy hockey?

"It's about being relentless, keep working, and we're not going to win being cute," Giguere said. "We don't have enough time to be cute."

Another save.

"What it means, you can't say on TV," Keith Carney said. "It's being hard-nosed, gritty, outworking the other player."

Another assist.

"It says exactly what it means," Marc Chouinard said. "You go in there and get the puck."

Not like an acrobat or a sprinter or a Jagr.

But, like, crawling under a car. Or climbing into a machine. Or scooting under a sink.

"It's a small-town Canadian saying," explained General Manager Bryan Murray. "It was always like, 'If you're not greasy, we don't want you on our team.' "

He had actually heard it before. But until hiring Babcock, he had never used it.

"There's a lot of things he says that I say differently," said Murray with a smile.

But maybe that's why it works. Maybe the NHL needed to hear something different this season. Maybe the decade that Babcock spent coaching in the minor leagues taught him that grease is, indeed, the word.

"I don't know where it came from," Babcock said of the expression. "What I meant by that is ... you want to be involved. The thing that we, as a group, want to be proud of every day as we leave the rink is how hard we work, how hard we competed."

Greasy Hockey.

It's not Showtime, or the Fearsome Foursome, or the Gutty Little Bruins, or even the Stunt Men.

But if the Ducks survive tonight and eventually win one of the most unlikely championships in league history, it should certainly fit on a T-shirt.

Torn, unwashed and lovely.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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