Don't know if you noticed, but the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim are in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Really. Been written about in all the papers. Been advertised on the walls of the Arrowhead Pond in billboard-sized letters so large you can read them from the 57 freeway. So large they seem to tower above you as you stand in the parking lot of JT Schmids on the other side of Katella Avenue.
Of course, inside JT Schmids is another story. There, the Ducks' opening playoff game against the Calgary Flames is shown on two TVs, but so are two early-season Angel and Dodger games. The Ducks game is in the second period, with the Flames clinging to a 1-0 lead, yet no one seems to be hanging on every shot and save—or, for that matter, the game's outcome.
"Yeah, I haven't paid much attention to [the Ducks]. In fact, when I came in here and saw they were in the playoffs, I was like, 'Oh yeah,'" says Vince Frechette of Anaheim, nursing a beer. "I guess I heard about it somewhere, but it didn't really register."
Vince says he isn't the "biggest Ducks fan in the world," but says he was moved enough by the team in 2003, when they reached the Stanley Cup finals, to attend the Game 7 telecast inside the Pond. He says he'd like to see them do well again, but, for whatever reason, he's "just not that excited."
"Just not that excited" seems to be the most pronounced characteristic of the Ducks this season. Yes, most people know that the team exists, and maybe they heard they were in the playoffs, but anything resembling the anticipation and excitement that normally accompany a team in the playoffs—especially one having just set a team record for points in a season—is clearly absent.
You're not talking Ducks, you're not flying Ducks (flags), you're not wearing Ducks (jerseys).
Seen any Duck flags lately, Vince?
"You mean like . . . oh, on cars. Oh, I dunno."
It all seems a bit incredible, given that the team is only three years removed from its run to the Stanley Cup finals. That team—tough, resilient—came to within a game of the championship and captured the county's imagination. People were excited about it, and tickets were a hot commodity.
But when I go on the Ducks' website the morning of April 21—the day of Game 1 against the Flames—I find that not only are there tickets still available for the Ducks playoff opener in Anaheim on April 25, but there are good tickets still available: Section 228 (the lowest level), Row R, seats 1 and 2; very good seats at $90 . . . plus a $3 building facility charge . . . plus a $6.50 convenience charge . . . plus $2.50 if I want them e-mailed to me. This despite the fact that playoff tickets have been on sale for a week.
"I dunno, it's just, I dunno," says Vince when I ask him to explain this, apparently tiring of my line of questioning. "Yeah, I guess, you know, I dunno."
There's every reason to be excited about the team. After a slow start, the Ducks finished strong, going 23-8-5 to compile a team-record 96 points. Though franchise icon Paul Kariya left, the most important person from that team, goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, remains. Teemu Selanne, fresh from a heroic Olympic performance, is back on the team. This too is a tough, resilient team, with the likes of the Niedermeyer brothers—Scott and Rob—as well as just-can't-help-rooting-for-the-guy types like 5'11", 186-pound Andy McDonald, who had 85 points this season.
The obvious reason for fan apathy is last year's lockout, when the NHL became the first major, professional sports league in America to cancel an entire season because of a labor dispute. The lockout cost the NHL a major TV partner in ESPN, but more, it cost the NHL the casual fan. True, the NHL has pointed out that it had record attendance this year, but anyone who knows the rabid nature of hockey fans knows that a team drawing, say, 17,000 is drawing a good deal of repeat customers.
Real buzz and real excitement—and real big TV ratings—come when casual fans are engaged. Casual fans make the Super Bowl the biggest event in America. Casual fans made the Ducks arguably the biggest team in town three years ago. Then the lockout came. The casual fan just moved on to something else.
What have you moved on to, Vince?
". . ."
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It may be that the casual fan was distracted by the other Anaheim team, the Los Angeles Angels. It was while the Ducks were making their late-season push that Anaheim's suit against the LA Angels—for calling themselves the LA Angels—went to court, sucking up most of the attention for the Angels, unquestionably the biggest team in town now.
Do you think this had a big effect on the Ducks, Vince? Do you think the team will ever be able to gain back what it had in 2003? Will it take another magical playoff run, or has hockey had its chance? And what about China?
"Yeah, maybe, I dunno. Maybe."