Monday, May 02, 2005

R.I.P. Cincinnati Mighty Ducks

The Mightiest Ducks
No NHL? No problem. Some of the best hockey players in the world can be found in Cincinnati. Yes, Cincinnati.

Jason Cohen

An old-fashioned skating tableau plays out at the Festival of Lights in see-your-breath December chill. High school girls giggle at the older boys. Parents watch as toddlers fail to stay upright. Handwarming hot chocolate is in short supply. And out in the middle of the rink, three 21 year olds sporting the jade and purple of the Mighty Ducks glide up and down the ice.
Except, well…there isn’t any ice. Skating at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden now takes place on a synthetic surface—a few hundred interlocking panels of something called Polymer XMG, sprayed with a topcoat of fresh silicone. The faux freeze seems especially incongruous on this night, as those guys in jerseys are not only members of the American Hockey League Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, but among the best young hockey players in the world.
The little fellow with the short brown mane of hair, speaking Russian on a cell phone? That’s Stanislav Chistov, a smooth, speedy winger who played a huge part in the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim’s 2002–2003 run at the Stanley Cup. And his bigger, taller, tight-curled teammate, the guy padding across the surface with a little boy—“I skated with 15!,” the youngster later enthuses to his dad—is Joffrey Lupul, fresh from a 13-goal, 21-assist rookie campaign for Anaheim. Lupul left the Cincinnati Gardens after this morning’s practice in an orange Carson Palmer jersey—fitting, as the Albertan sniper is expected to play almost as big a role in Anaheim’s future as his fellow first round draft pick must for the Bengals.
Of course, the farm club for a National Hockey League franchise hopes to stock its roster with top talent every year. But this season is a little different. On September 15, 2004, the NHL locked out all its players, officially setting off a labor dispute that could result in the first-ever cancellation of a major league sport’s entire season (things remained uncertain as of early January). That being the case, more than 300 NHLers have set out across the ocean. The level of competition in countries like Russia, Switzerland and Sweden varies, but the salaries are six figures and higher.
The average American Hockey League player, on the other hand, makes $55,000. But for guys like Chistov and Lupul, prospects who are not 100 percent proven—and, not incidentally, prospects whose contracts allowed Anaheim to send them down to Cincinnati before the lockout started—the AHL is where they need to be. “You always want to be playing with the best players you can, and right now I think this is the best league in the world,” says Lupul, who would make close to $1.2 million this year if there was actually an NHL for him to play in.
All of which comes as a surprise to Barbara Arlinghaus, a Cincinnati Zoo employee who helps maintain the artificial rink. “I thought they were out of local colleges or something!,” the 20-year-old says. At least she knows the team exists, unlike 90 percent of the people at the Festival of Lights (let’s just say the demand for pictures with the Toy Soldier and the Gingerbread Man is a lot higher than the demand for autographs from future NHLers).
The Ducks draw an average of 5,000-plus fans a night, among them a devoted core of season ticketholders and corporate sponsors, including folks who play the sport (adults and children both). But for most people, the ones who get out to the Gardens once or twice a year, hockey is just another family friendly entertainment spectacle: popcorn, candy, T-shirts, prizes, on top of goals and fighting. Cincinnati’s blood does not run jade and purple. Nobody roots for the Mighty Ducks because their parents’ parents did, and that was no less true of the Cyclones (Cincinnati’s more established hockey team, which had been in town since 1990 but spent the last three years as members of a lower-level league, suspended operations in April of 2004). In a town that has the Reds and Bengals as well as Xavier and UC, civic pride is never on the line over a puck—not even when the opponent is the Cleveland Barons.
Still, the fact remains—since they started playing here in 1997, the Mighty Ducks have offered hockey at as high a level as the Bearcats and Musketeers do basketball. The AHL is just a step below the top, the place where pro stars of the future get their polish. “You have to continue to develop players if you’re going to have any success, and you’ve got to do it better than other teams,” says Anaheim head coach Mike Babcock, whose own rise through the ranks included two years in the Queen City. He then took the big club to the Stanley Cup final his first year in the NHL, thanks in large part to a player he also had in Cincinnati, goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Also on that Anaheim team was journeyman forward Dan Bylsma, now the assistant coach in Cincinnati under current bench boss Brad Shaw.
And then there’s Chistov, who scored four points in his very first professional game and dazzled the entire hockey world throughout the ’02–’03 season. Like Lupul, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and several other “Baby Ducks,” you probably wouldn’t see him at the Gardens if there hadn’t been a lockout. Then again, he was already here last spring, having failed to repeat the success he had as a 19-year-old. Back then, “I was excited to make the NHL, and to all my friends back in Russia, I was their idol,” Chistov, now a wizened 21, recalls. “But second year, coaches expect more from you. I didn’t deliver, so I have to show them I can play again.”
Chistov’s struggle is a common one. He’s got all the talent in the world, but to make it in the NHL for good he has to play a more conservative, defensive style than he learned in Russia. Dan Bylsma says that’s not so much a hockey battle “as a life battle. We all have to learn what’s appropriate for the situation, what’s appropriate for the boss, how to fit in best to the team. How you fit in is just as important as how skilled you are sometimes.”
Chistov gets that, even if he hasn’t put it all together yet. He knows what Sergei Fedorov, his teammate up in Anaheim and one of the most skilled players in the history of the game, told him: “It doesn’t matter about your talent. If you don’t work, nothing will happen.” He also knows that nothing’s guaranteed, no matter how high you were drafted or how much money you make or what you did in seasons past. “You can have a good first year and never play again in the NHL,” he says.
And should Chistov forget any of that stuff, even for one minute, his teammates will be happy to remind him.
“HEY ‘CHEESE!’” one yells out at the zoo, after noticing that Chistov’s with a journalist. “Tell ’em about your defensive play!”
It’s typically good-natured locker room type ribbing, and yet, it’s not really a joke. You could even say the player doing it is showing leadership, holding a great player accountable and staying on him for his own good. But what’s most interesting about the whole exchange is who that player is: undrafted third-year pro Zenon Konopka.
With a name like that, you might expect another Eastern European, which is only somewhat true: Konopka’s father came to Canada from Poland at 15, going on to work at a General Motors plant while also tending to a farm. Sundays, the whole family would go to market, selling grapes and apples.
Compared to that, hockey’s easy work, which is why Konopka, 23, works so hard at it—both on and off the ice. He’s one of the Ducks’ most active players when it comes to charity and public outreach. In Ottawa, where he played junior hockey for four years, Konopka visited almost 100 schools. And when the Ducks set up a pre-Christmas Children’s Hospital visit during a lengthy road trip (meaning only injured players left at home could do it), Konopka went there on his own upon arriving back in town.
“There’s not too many people that get to do something they really like to do for a living,” he says. “We’re blessed in that, so I want to give a lot back to the community. Any time we can help out I’m first in line for that stuff.”
Overlooked by the NHL despite winning two championships in Ottawa, where he was also the team captain, Konopka took the long way ’round to get here, with stops in Wheeling, West Virginia, Boise, Idaho, Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, and Salt Lake City, Utah, over the past two seasons. This past September Anaheim invited him to rookie camp, but Mike Babcock readily admits that he was nothing more than filler—an extra body for the practice squad. Nine days later, Babcock had him slotted as a potential American league depth guy, essentially the 11th or 12th best forward on the team. Flash forward four more months and Konopka is not only a character guy but also Cincinnati’s fifth leading scorer, right up there with Chistov, who he was watching on TV along with everybody else two years ago.
“If you had told me then that I was gonna make fun of Chistov, that I’d be on the same team as him, I’d have probably said you’re crazy,” Konopka admits. “But it’s weird how things work out.”
Weird enough that he may yet have a future in the big league. “When you talk about skill,” says Babcock, “you think about puckhandling and you think about skating. But learning to work hard every single day is a skill. Bringing energy every day is a skill. And those two things are contagious in the NHL.”
They are also two things fans of any sport should treasure. At a time when every principle of sportsmanship we want our kids to learn gets contradicted nightly on TV, Konopka is a genuine for-the-love-of-the-game, sweat-of-his-brow, not-about-the-money athlete.
“You’d have a tough time arguing that he’s not the hardest working guy in the league,” suggests Brad Shaw.
Which makes him one of the hardest working players in the world.
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