There are rare moments when sports imitates art, cases of deja vu
that seemingly could only have occurred in a cineplex. The Mighty
Ducks of Anaheim, a franchise whose name was taken from a Disney
movie, are blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality.
The NHL players are eerily similar to the characters in the film,
although it is a diverse group of Americans, Belarusans,
Canadians, Latvians and Swiss in place of the cinematic plucky
girl, the klutzy white boys and the uplifting minority kids.
Today's Mighty Ducks also have their own version of a kid named
Goldberg in net, for the play of real-life goalie Jean-Sebastien
Giguere seems no less preposterous.
Led by Giguere (pronounced ZHEE-gair), Anaheim swept the
defending Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings in the first
round of the playoffs and then eliminated the No. 1-seeded Dallas
Stars in six games, winning 4-3 on Monday night to advance to the
Western Conference finals. Giguere's playoff goals-against
average after the two series was 1.60, his save percentage was
.949, and all eight games he had won had been by one goal and
four had gone into overtime. Fact or fantasy? "This is the best
sustained stretch of goaltending I've ever seen," says Ducks
defenseman Keith Carney, a 12-year NHL veteran. "I've played with
some good goalies, but this run has been remarkable, especially
given the intensity and pressure of the playoffs."
Giguere, who is called Jiggy or sometimes Jigger by his teammates
and coach Mike Babcock, was splendid in the second half of the
regular season but has turned into the French Resistance (circa
1941-44, not 2003) in the playoffs, as heroic as the parameters
of sport allow. The arena that a year ago was half-filled and
home to one of the NHL's irrelevant teams is now a tough
ticket--even for Shaun Weiss, the actor who portrayed Goldberg.
According to the Ducks, Weiss keeps calling the Anaheim office in
a futile effort to get comp seats.
Giguere, however, remains virtually unrecognizable away from the
rink. He says he has been stopped only once in public, at an
IHOP, the morning the Ducks were to leave for Dallas to start the
second round. Of course Giguere wears a mask at work and sports a
playoff beard, part of hockey's peculiar culture, for the first
time. In parts of six NHL seasons Giguere, who turns 26 this
month, has stopped pucks for the Hartford Whalers (1996-97), the
Calgary Flames ('98-99 through '99-2000) and Anaheim. Before the
Ducks' breakthrough this season, if you played on any of those
teams, the first thing you would usually do is stock up on razor
Giguere arrived in Anaheim in 2000 after being dumped by Calgary
for a second-round draft choice. At 17 he had been a world-class
junior goalie. At 18 he had been a first-round draft pick. At 23
he was a mess. His game had gone from textbook simple to tax-form
complicated. He was freelancing, playing too far out of his
crease, challenging every shooter, seemingly making it up as he
went along. "Every shot," says Ducks goaltending consultant
Francois Allaire, "was a fight."
Allaire has known Giguere since the netminder showed up at his
hockey school at age 12. Then again Allaire, the godfather of the
modern butterfly goalie, knows everybody who is anybody in the
incestuous world of Quebec goaltending. Assuming a kid's skills
were strong and his intentions were serious, he would end up at
Allaire's school, which was part of the educational process in
the goalie-besotted province. And no children were more serious
about the sport than Claude and Gisele Giguere's. This was a
hockey family. Claude, a former prison guard who now drives a
school bus, took a second mortgage on his house in a bedroom
community north of Montreal to finance the hockey futures of his
three sons and two daughters. (Stephane, the oldest, was a 1986
Toronto Maple Leafs draft choice and played forward for one
season in the International Hockey League; Isabelle was a
defenseman who played in a woman's league and was also a game
official, having worked the 1998 Olympic women's final. The other
two children, Alain and Caroline, played into their teens but did
not become pros.) Jean-Sebastien attended Allaire's school for
several summers, then went to play juniors in suburban Montreal,
where his first goalie coach was Allaire's brother, Benoit, who
worked the summer camps with Francois and now serves as the
Phoenix Coyotes' goaltending coach. By the time Giguere entered
the pros, he was well-versed in the Allaire philosophy--strong
angles, bottom of the net covered--but his style eroded in
lockstep with his confidence as he bounced around the minors and
some horrid NHL teams.
The rebuilding process was as straightforward as the style
Allaire teaches. Allaire moved Giguere to the top of the
blue-tinted crease, reminded him not to drop into the butterfly
too early, to stay square to the shooter, to put himself in a
position where shots would find him. Giguere's style became
Orange County conservative, even down to minimal handling of the
puck. Giguere slowly became a model of efficiency, limiting
mistakes and mastering the tricky art of rebound control.
Allaire's theory about rebounds is counterintuitive--he says they
generally should be directed to the middle of the ice, not
steered to the sideboards--but it makes perfect sense to Giguere,
whose shutout streak of 237 minutes and seven seconds in December
was the league's longest since 1950. "You want to leave it where
your teammates are," Giguere said in Dallas last Friday, the day
before his one sub-par playoff performance, in a 4-1 Game 5 loss
during which he was pulled after two periods. "Look at a penalty
kill. We've got four of our guys in the middle, in the box, and
they might have one. Why throw it into the corner? You have to
play the odds."
Giguere did not merely play the odds, he defied them at the end
of a third-period power play against the Stars in Game 4 on April
30 when he slid across the goalmouth to make a save with his left
skate on a one-timer by Mike Modano in a 1-0 win. But perhaps
Giguere's most memorable postseason move occurred in his first
NHL playoff match three weeks earlier, in Game 1 in Detroit,
after Luc Robitaille dinged a shot off the crossbar in the first
overtime. Before one of the referees talked to the video replay
official upstairs--the red goal light had illuminated--Giguere
skated out of his crease and brazenly gave a safe sign, telling
the 20,000-plus fans in Joe Louis Arena that the puck had not
gone in (he was correct) and that he was ready to play all night.
"That was outstanding," says Allaire, who was also formerly the
Montreal Canadiens' goalie instructor. "He made 20 saves in that
first overtime, maybe the best goaltending I'd seen since Patrick
Roy [then a Montreal rookie] stopped 13 in overtime [during Game
3 of the 1986 conference finals against the New York Rangers].
But when Jiggy waved off that goal, he was telling the world that
he had no fear. That gave our team a good feeling."
The Ducks have surfed that wave of good feeling into the third
round. Giguere has been unaffected by the newfound attention,
dismissing compliments with a shrug. He is intense on the ice,
even in practice, and chatty, almost gregarious, away from the
rink. "Jigger," says Babcock, the Anaheim coach, "has soul." He
also has enough grace to handle pressure of a different kind.
Gisele, his 59-year-old mother, has suffered from Alzheimer's
disease for the past year. She is aware of what her youngest
child is accomplishing and waits excitedly for his daily phone
calls. "What he's been doing stimulates her," says Claude, 58.
For his part Claude follows the playoff games intently, though
only for a period or two when the Ducks play at home. "Those
games are a little late," he says of the matches on the West
Coast. "I've got to get up at six o'clock to drive the bus."
Claude says you never know what awaits you around the corner,
which is true in life and sports and the better movies. There is
a laundry list of similarities between the Ducks and the
Canadiens' upstart Stanley Cup winner 10 years ago: Montreal had
an Allaire-schooled butterfly goalie in Roy, who won an
improbable 10 straight overtime games and got two game-winning
goals in the finals from John LeClair. Anaheim has an
Allaire-schooled butterfly goalie in Giguere, who had won four
straight in overtime through Monday and benefited from two
game-winners in the second round from Mike Leclerc. Who knows?
This could be foreshadowing or simply coincidence, a run to the
Cup or a playoff performance that will go straight to video.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SHELLY CASTELLANO/ISM THE MIGHTIEST DUCK Thanks to the stellar play of Giguere, Anaheim swept the defending champ Wings and then took out the No. 1-seeded Stars.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO HEAVY TRAFFIC Despite the many crease crashers from Dallas, Giguere kept his focus and the puck out of the net.
"When Jiggy waved off that goal," says Allaire, "he was telling
the world that he had no fear."