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The Mighty Ducks were half of the NHL’s second wave of expansion in the 1990’s along with the Florida Panthers. Their debut season in 1993-94 saw a team with little talent and what was widely considered to be the most ridiculous name and uniforms in the NHL, inspired by the film franchise The Mighty Ducks, whose creators, Disney, were the team’s first owners.
Though the Ducks scored little in their first season, their respectable 33-46-5 record was a tribute to their goaltending, handled mostly by a young netminder named Guy Hebert, and their hard-working style, installed by a little-known former Vancouver Canucks assistant, head coach Ron Wilson, who would go on to be one of hockey’s foremost American-born coaches. The lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, during which the Ducks mustered a mere 16 wins in a 48-game schedule, was one to forget save for the debut of one Paul Kariya, a left-winger who was the team’s first round draft choice in 1993.
Kariya would finish as the runner-up for the league’s rookie of the year award that season, and followed that up with a 50-goal, 108-point season. 1995-96 also saw the Ducks acquire star forward Teemu Selanne midway through the season, and the Selanne-Kariya duo went on to lead the Ducks to the playoffs for the first time in 1996-97, where they would lose in the second round to Detroit, the eventual Stanley Cup Champions. However, just as the team seemed to be on the rise, the Ducks were dealt two blows that made the 1997-98 season a debacle. Coach Wilson jumped ship to the Washington Capitals in the summer of 1997, while Kariya played just 21 games during the season due to a contract dispute and, later on, a serious concussion.
The Ducks would bounce back the next season under new coach Craig Hartsburg and return to the playoffs on the strength of 107 and 101 point seasons from Selanne and Kariya, respectively. However, after another loss to Detroit, this time in the first round, the Ducks forgot how to fly, and missed the playoffs for three straight seasons.
Selanne was dealt in a cost-cutting move late in the 2000-01 season to the San Jose Sharks, Hebert, who had lost some of his lustre as the team’s top goalie, was dispatched to New York that same season, Hartsburg gave way to Guy Charron midway through 2000-01, who was replaced in the off season by Bryan Murray. However, once Murray was moved to the front office to replace fired general manager Pierre Gauthier, the Ducks took off once more.
Minor league coach Mike Babcock took over in the summer of 2002, and Murray added players such as Petr Sykora, Adam Oates, Sandis Ozolinsh, Steve Thomas, and Rob Niedermayer who, along with the returning core of Kariya, Steve Rucchin, Keith Carney, and a goalie by the name of Jean-Sebastian Giguere, who took over the team’s number one duties once Hebert was traded, led the Ducks to the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals. Giguere won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, despite the fact that the Ducks lost in seven games against New Jersey.
Despite the unexpected and nearly magical run, change was still in store for Anaheim, as superstar Sergei Fedorov was signed as a free agent, while the team said goodbye to Oates, Thomas, and, in a move that was almost the end of an era in Anaheim, Kariya. More changes were in store after the Ducks missed the playoffs again in 2003-04 due in part to slumps (particularly by Giguere), injuries (especially to Carney, Niedermayer and Ozolinsh), and chemistry problems (mostly with Fedorov). Murray left to coach in Ottawa and several players were dealt in cost-cutting moves, leaving the Ducks as a team that could just as easily sink to the league’s lower rungs as rise to the upper echelons.
(All information compiled by Brian Pike, MOP Squad Sports Hockey Editor)