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Like Fire And Ice

With the Stanley Cup finals behind them and Fedorov and Prospal ahead, Ducks suddenly are the hot property in Southland hockey.

October 07, 2003|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

These are words that once would have been uttered in hushed tones, after carefully checking to see that the coast was clear. Or admitted before a self-help group, where sympathetic ears could feel the pain.

I am a Mighty Duck.

This season's Duck marketing pitch could have been translated another way during many past woeful seasons: I am a doormat, pity me.

The words are the same. The image has changed.

A surprising appearance in the playoffs and astunning run to the Stanley Cup finals, where they came within one victory of the title, have left the Ducks in uncharted waters.

Even the departure of team captain Paul Kariya this summer proved to be no more than an exchange of superstars rather than a continuation of the annual front-office gaffe -- see the Tony Tavares and Pierre Gauthier eras for examples. In came free agents Sergei Fedorov and Vaclav Prospal, bringing great expectations with them.

So say it loud ...

" ... Yeah, I am a Mighty Duck," defenseman Keith Carney said, smirking.

What the Ducks, who open the season Wednesday at Dallas, want to avoid is looking back at the end of the season and having to say: I am a Carolina Hurricane. The Hurricanes made a similar whirlwind trek through the 2002 Stanley Cup playoffs, before losing in the finals. They followed that up by finishing last in the Eastern Conference, a first-to-worst tumble that left them in the fluke bin.

"To tell you the truth, we haven't even thought about that," said center Steve Rucchin, who has replaced Kariya as team captain. "There is too much character in this locker room to let anything like that happen. We're not cocky or arrogant, but we're confident in each other. We know what is ahead of us."

Of course, instead of going to Carolina in their minds, the Ducks can think about what happened across the 57 Freeway, where the Angels followed their World Series championship with a free fall.

Last season, the Ducks were repeatedly asked whether the Angels had inspired them. The answer was yes. A year later, the Ducks will try not to be lemmings and follow the Angels off that cliff.

"It's not about one year," Coach Mike Babcock said. "The test of a player, coach or organization is the test of time.

"We made drastic changes. I have talked with [Carolina Coach] Paul Maurice a lot. I have talked with [Angel Manager] Mike Scioscia. That doesn't make you any smarter, you're just trying to gather information."

Others gathering information see the Ducks battling Dallas for the Pacific Division title instead of wallowing with the likes of Nashville and Columbus. Those lofty expectations from outsiders are new for the Ducks, who will be scrutinized as never before, whether it is Fedorov's presence or goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere's contract.

"I think every player on this team can keep those things in perspective," Rucchin said. "We have people who can handle that."

This is still the team that lost to New Jersey in seven games in the Stanley Cup finals. Yet, in some ways it is better.

Giguere is now considered among the NHL's best, with a new four-year, $20-million contract befitting that status. Rucchin and Carney emerged as top NHL players, the blue-collar variety, although Carney will miss at least the first three weeks because of a broken foot. Petr Sykora, Sandis Ozolinsh, Rob Niedermayer and Co. extend the core of talent, replacing the "cast members" who passed for depth on previous Duck teams.

Only 10 players remain from the 2001-02 team picture, when Bryan Murray took over as general manager.

"It's been amazing, the turnaround," Carney said. "I'm happy to be a part of an organization that makes the effort to be better and win."

Fedorov and Prospal were marquee free agents to whom the Ducks made a beeline this summer. That put Murray in a rare category.

General managers trying to put together a championship team go get those types of players. General managers who merely want to tread water complain about the contracts those types of players get.

Season-ticket sales are up about 2,000, according to the Ducks. A marketing campaign, overt instead of stealthy, is in place. The Western Conference championship banner will be raised at the home opener Sunday. Things have never looked better for the Ducks.

They even have a guy in charge of worrying.

"If you think there is carry-over, there is not," Babcock said. "You have to reestablish and re-earn. What is so important for us is to make sure we understand there are only eight [playoff] spots and there are a lot of real good teams. You can't make the playoffs in the first 20 games, but you can sure bury yourself."

Stay tuned for the daily, "This is the most important game of the season" sound bites, a mantra that served the Ducks well last season. More important, though, is the presence of players such as Fedorov and Prospal.

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