California dreamin': Ducks finally bring Cup to the West Coast

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Anaheim Ducks did something this week that not even Wayne Gretzky was able to do, that is, bring a Stanley Cup championship to the state of California.

To be fair, the Ducks will always owe a debt to the "The Great One" for his contributions to California hockey. After all, Gretzky being sent in a trade to the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 1988 greatly expanded the sport's popularity in California and led to the NHL adding two more teams to the Golden State in the Ducks and the San Jose Sharks.

Having three hockey teams in California was a gamble and putting the Ducks so close to the Kings' fan base seemed like a bad idea. However, Anaheim outlasted those doubts, and when it ousted the Ottawa Senators in five games during the finals, the franchise finally completed the long journey from Disney creation to Stanley Cup champion.

Anaheim came into the league for the 1993-94 campaigns, six years after Gretzky changed his address from Edmonton to LA and two seasons after San Jose landed its franchise. Back then the team was known as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and it seemed that Disney, which owned the club until 2005, cared more about promoting its tedious hockey films than winning a championship.

To be blunt, the name made the franchise somewhat of a joke in its early years, but that laughter has since turned to respect. It should be noted that the team happened to win the Stanley Cup in its first year being known as simply the Anaheim Ducks.

Teemu Selanne
Teemu Selanne won his first Stanley Cup title after 14 stellar years in the league.
While the name change is simply symbolic of the Ducks' maturation into one of the NHL's elite teams, an ownership switch in 2005 made a tangible and positive difference for the club.

The Disney-led ownership watched as the upstart Ducks, a seventh seed in the West, went all the way to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup in 2003 before losing to the New Jersey Devils. Then just two years later in June 2005, Disney sold the Anaheim franchise to Henry Samueli and his wife Susan.

The Samuelis wasted no time in putting their face on the franchise, and just weeks after buying the Ducks the new owners persuaded Brian Burke to take over as the team's general manager. That move made all the difference.

It was under Burke's watch that the Ducks were able to land the pair of superstar defensemen that gave the club such an edge this season.

First, Burke lured Scott Niedermayer to Anaheim, albeit with the help of Scott's younger brother Rob, who was already a key member of the Ducks. Then, this past offseason, Burke orchestrated the trade for Chris Pronger, who came over from Edmonton just weeks after his Oilers beat Anaheim in the 2006 Western Conference finals.

The pairing of Niedermayer and Pronger, both former Norris Trophy winners as the league's best defenseman, made the Ducks an instant Cup contender, and the combination turned out to be a winning one.

Scott Niedermayer won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, but possibly even more special was the fact that he was able to share a Stanley Cup title with his brother Rob. It's only fair considering Scott was a huge part of the Devils team that beat Anaheim in the 2003 Cup finals.

It wouldn't be right to forget about Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the Ducks' superb goaltender who always gets better when the playoffs begin. Giguere was the Conn Smythe winner in 2003 for the runner-up Ducks and nobody would have complained if he had been picked as the MVP of this postseason.

This Cup is also special for players on the opposite ends of their NHL careers like Teemu Selanne, the 36-year-old Finn who won his first Stanley Cup title after 14 stellar years in the league. Selanne had previously played parts of five seasons with the Ducks from 1996-2001 and his decision to return to Anaheim as a free agent in the summer of 2005 proved to be a wise choice.

Selanne also spent three years with the San Jose Sharks, so it is fitting that he was on the first California squad to win a Stanley Cup.

On the other side of Selanne is Ryan Getzlaf, a 22-year-old with boundless potential in this league. Getzlaf was actually the leading scorer for Anaheim in the playoffs with 17 points and his combination of skill and power should make him a top-line center for many years to come. Also, he already knows what it takes to win it all and that should make him even more dangerous.

This is a franchise that built a winner with a potent mix of defensive firepower, excellent goaltending and a bevy of young talent. Southern California should be proud to call the Ducks their own.

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Dan Di Sciullo