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Inside The NHL

Steve Rucchin is the ideal guy to play with the Ducks' mightiest

At first blush, seeing workmanlike center Steve Rucchin skating
between dazzling Ducks All-Star wings Paul Kariya and Teemu
Selanne seems as incongruous as the thought of Gerald Ford's
head between Washington's and Lincoln's on Mount Rushmore.
Closer inspection, however, reveals that Rucchin is an ideal
complement to Anaheim's dynamic duo and a deserving mainstay on
a line that, through Sunday, had accounted for 43 of the Ducks'
87 goals. Eleven of those goals (along with 22 assists) belonged
to the 6'3", 215-pound Rucchin, who's having a career season.

"Steve's smart with the puck, and he knows us," says Selanne,
who had a team-high 18 goals. "Whenever I forget to play
defense, he's there. People say we need a superstar center, but
we're doing great with Steve."

"I'm the luckiest guy in the league to be playing with them,"
says the modest Rucchin. "And the most envied."

Last summer, instead of trying to land high-scoring free-agent
center Ron Francis to play on its first line, Anaheim re-signed
the 27-year-old Rucchin to a four-year, $9.2 million contract.
The raise of some $2 million over his 1997-98 salary came four
years after Ducks scouts discovered Rucchin on the campus of the
University of Western Ontario where, he says, he was studying
biology earnestly and playing hockey for fun. Anaheim liked his
skills and chose him in the '94 supplemental draft.

While Kariya, who had a league-leading 47 points at week's end,
and Selanne often make plays that show up on highlight tapes,
Rucchin does the unglamorous work with exceptional efficiency.
His 46 takeaways were third among NHL forwards, and he had
committed a paltry 19 turnovers. Rucchin had also taken more
face-offs (1,054) than anyone else in the league (and won 52%)
and, partly because of his duties as a penalty killer, was
averaging 23 minutes and 45 seconds of ice time per game, sixth
among NHL forwards.

Still, Rucchin's style isn't about to make him famous. While
Kariya and Selanne were being detained by reporters and then by
autograph seekers after a game last week in Toronto, Rucchin
pulled on a dark suit and slipped into the still crowded
corridors of Maple Leafs Gardens. He walked along quietly,
unpestered by fans who didn't know they were near the most
envied man in the league.

Toronto Assistant Coach

When Maple Leafs assistant coach Alpo Suhonen talks about a cat
on a hot tin roof, he's not describing the status of goalie Felix
(the Cat) Potvin, who left the Leafs last month in an attempt to
force a trade. Instead, Suhonen is citing the Tennessee Williams
play he produced in 1994 in his native Finland, where Suhonen is
a legendary coach and a notable figure in the theater. To
Suhonen, all the rink's a stage, and the Maple Leafs are merely

"An actor and a hockey player have similar tasks," says the
50-year-old Suhonen, who was hired by Toronto in August and who
usually runs the Leafs' practices for coach Pat Quinn. "They have
to perform. Remember that a hockey player isn't always a hockey
player--only when he's on the ice, when he's in character."

Suhonen, the Finnish national coach from 1982 through '86, has
directed several plays over the years, and in '90 he left his job
as a Winnipeg Jets assistant to become the artistic director for
Finland's nationally renowned Turku Theater. Three seasons later
he had a return engagement with the Jets.

"Sometimes an actor will have excellent technique but he's
missing something inside," says Suhonen. "Same thing in hockey.
Some players have great tools, but they're missing something that
keeps them from being dominant. What you have to look at is the
performer's emotional state."

With a new coaching staff, the resurgent Leafs had a 21-14-2
record through Sunday. For his part Quinn is pleased to have
Suhonen expounding his theories. "They can be very useful," Quinn
says, "but, of course, actors don't usually have somebody ready
to pound them on the nose and take the puck."

Clarke's Ineptness

No hockey executive has had a sorrier last 18 months than Flyers
general manager Bobby Clarke, chief saboteur of his team's
championship hopes. Since Philadelphia was swept in the 1997
Stanley Cup finals by the Red Wings, Clarke has replaced two
coaches and made several misguided trades that not only have
weakened the Flyers' still formidable lineup but also
contributed to dressing-room dissension.

In August 1997 he signed Lightning restricted free-agent center
Chris Gratton to a five-year, $16.5 million deal that included a
$9 million bonus. Instead of compensating Tampa Bay with four
first-round draft choices as stipulated in the collective
bargaining agreement, he worked out a deal in which Philadelphia
sent talented winger Mikael Renberg and stay-at-home defenseman
Karl Dykhuis to the Lightning. Last month Clarke traded Gratton,
who scored only 23 goals in his 1 1/2 seasons in Philly, back to
Tampa Bay for Renberg.

Clearly unafraid to admit a mistake, Clarke last week reacquired
Dykhuis for popular veteran defenseman Petr Svoboda. Several
Flyers met that trade with arched eyebrows and found Clarke's
justification odd: He said that while Svoboda was a
lay-it-on-the-line player who was prone to injuries, "Dykhuis
never gets hurt."

Apparently the hockey gods decided to exact revenge on Clarke
for his string of blunders. In Dykhuis's first game back with
the Flyers, he was struck by a stick and suffered a broken
cheekbone. He's sidelined indefinitely.

COLOR PHOTO: DEBORA ROBINSON/LG Rucchin (left) is having a career year centering Anaheim's No. 1 line for Kariya and Selanne. [Steve Rucchin in game]


Capitals Tickets
Average price: $52.71

The seats in Washington are the third-most expensive in the NHL,
yet the Caps were 12-20-3 at week's end and subjecting fans in
the U.S. capital to the Eastern Conference's second-worst
offense (80 goals).

Senators Tickets
Average price: $32.60

The seats in Ottawa are the third-least expensive in the NHL,
yet the Senators were 18-13-4 and treating fans in Canada's
capital to the Eastern Conference's second-best offense (105