Forget Tinkerbell. From the glitz and the fairy dust that brought Disney's Mighty Ducks to the NHL has emerged one tough hockey team.
Through Saturday the Anaheim Mighty Ducks were 20-29-4, and if the playoffs started this week, they would qualify for the final spot in the Western Conference, ahead of even the Wayne Gretzky-led L.A. Kings. That in itself is fairly amazing for a first-year team that penalizes its players for saying the word expansion—"They will take my money," says left wing Stu Grimson after a slip of the lip—and plays its games in a palm tree-lined, mauve-colored arena just down the road from Mickey Mouse's house.
"I was worried that I wouldn't be able to play in this environment," says goalie Ron Tugnutt, who was chosen from the roster of the Edmonton Oilers in the expansion draft last June. "All this sun."
But it's because of Tugnutt and the team's other goalie, Guy Hebert, who was picked from the St. Louis Blues, that the Ducks are in the playoff hunt. At week's end Anaheim had allowed only 3.11 goals per game, 10th in the league.
"We don't have a ton of offensive firepower," says Duck captain Troy Loney, who won the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and '92 before joining the Ducks this season. "But we are aggressive and smart, and our goalies are really coming through for us."
That, Anaheim general manager Jack Ferreira will tell you, was precisely the plan. When putting this team together, he vowed to draft the best defenders, with an emphasis on goal-tending. Because the NHL wanted the first-year teams to have a chance for respectability, the expansion draft rules were changed to allow existing teams to protect only one goaltender rather than the two they had been able to protect in previous expansions. And so both Tugnutt and Hebert, who were playing behind two of the game's better goalies—Bill Ranford in Edmonton and Curtis Joseph in St. Louis—were available.
"That was our first priority," Ferreira says. "Second was to get a lot of size. When you play on the road, you tend to get intimidated. Size gives us an identity."
The Ducks, the biggest team in hockey, have 11 players who arc taller than six feet and weigh more than 200 pounds. The largest Duck of all is the 6'5", 227-pound Grimson, who is known as the Grim Reaper for his willingness to use his fists. "When we started, we had this light, fluffy' air about us," says Grimson. "That changed fast. This is a physical game, and we've adopted a certain style—we don't back off."
That has become increasingly evident on the road, where their record is 12-13-2. The Ducks, in fact, stunned the league on their first Western road swing, winning games in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. It is surprising, however, that with the league's first skating cheerleaders, a terrific mascot named Wild Wing and an arena that has been filled to 98% capacity, the Ducks have struggled at home.
Says Loney of their home ice disadvantage, "We're pumped, but we're freewheeling, getting away from the conservative game that works so well for us on the road."
Tugnutt blames the weather. "I didn't even know it was Christmas here until two days before. This all takes a little gelling used to."
Especially the winning.
With Tugnutt solid in the nets, the Ducks are in the playoff hunt.