The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim have proven the hockey Gods wrong once. Now they're going to try to do it again.
When the Ducks came into existence two years ago, hockey veterans said a team in the warm California sun, one without Wayne Gretzky, would never work. Especially with a cutesy name like the Mighty Ducks.
So much for foregone conclusions.
The Mighty Ducks, who have become the NHL's top merchandising team and among its most successful in attendance, yesterday officially announced their affiliation with Baltimore's new American Hockey League franchise and promised to do all they could to change the state of minor-league hockey in a city that considers itself major league.
Bob Teck and Alan Gertner, owners of the as-yet unnamed AHL franchise, held a news conference yesterday to announce the affiliation and to name Walt Kyle as the team's coach and Pierre Gauthier as general manager.
Tony Tavares, president of Disney Sports Enterprises Inc., and the man responsible for the overall operation of the Mighty Ducks, said he would like to see the new franchise average 7,000 to 8,000 fans per game, a tall order in Baltimore.
The Baltimore Skipjacks, a Washington Capitals affiliate and the last of a long line of minor-league teams to go out of business here, left the city for Portland, Maine, two years ago because the 11,025-seat Baltimore Arena consistently had 3,000 or fewer in attendance.
But both Tavares, who used to operate Spectacor Management Group, which booked events for arenas including the one in Baltimore, and Mighty Ducks general manager Jack Ferreira, who began his professional career with the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association in 1972, are familiar with the Baltimore Arena and its hockey history. And they said Baltimore suits their needs perfectly.
"It's a solid arena," said Tavares, confirming the affiliation agreement is for five years, two years longer than the most common operating agreements in the minor leagues. "There is nothing that a little paint wouldn't help. It just needs to be lightened up and livened up a little bit, and I think Bob and Alan have some ideas on it.
"They asked us for the reasons for our success in Anaheim and we said it was because it is a total entertainment evening. If you come to one of our games you see everything from cheerleaders to JumboTrons . . . to acts of Cirque de Soleil between periods. We try to spice it up and keep it different. The game is going to be different, but the entertainment also should be different.
"We're committed to helping this franchise do that any way we can."
The Mighty Ducks were affiliated with the San Diego Gulls of the Internation Hockey League last year. As for why they have chosen the AHL and Baltimore, Tavares and Ferreira are equally clear spoken.
"The deciding factor for choosing Baltimore was Bob Teck and Alan Gertner," said Ferreira. "Their philosophy matched ours. And I like the idea of our minor-league team being surrounded by major leagues. It's a major-league atmosphere here and it subtly reminds them of why they're here and where they want to be. I don't worry about the distance. The first time we had a call-up from San Diego they were in Atlanta and we were in Vancouver."
There are approximately 44 players under contract to the Mighty Ducks, and Ferreira said about 21 of them are 24 years old or younger.
"Player development is a key issue for us," Tavares said. "We had made up our mind that we were definitely going to the American Hockey League. We had some bad experiences in the International Hockey League, where older players were getting more ice time than our kids.
"We felt like we weren't developing kids. We have a great coach in Walt Kyle, but he was getting pressures from ownership to play the older players.
"I don't begrudge ownership down there for doing that because it's a way of life. The IHL is such a gate-driven league that player development becomes secondary. Here, Bob and Alan have philosophies similar to ours."
Kyle previously coached the 1992-93 U.S. National junior teams and in 1994 was an assistant with the U.S. National Team at the World Championships in Italy.
Gauthier, who spent 12 years in the Quebec Nordiques' scouting department before joining Anaheim, also will continue his role as assistant general manager of the Mighty Ducks.