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Duguay still feels strong ties to team, fans

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

If you were a Rangers fan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the image of Ron Duguay flying down right wing at Madison Square Garden is probably still burned in your mind.

Even if you weren't a hockey fan in that era, you probably remember Duguay.

The man who wore No. 10 for the Rangers from 1977 to 1983 -- and later No. 44 during a second stint in the late 1980s -- was big news in the Big Apple, both on and off the ice. A key player in a particularly exciting era of Rangers hockey, his charm and good looks were the talk of the town.

Duguay was more than just a star player -- he was a New York icon of his era, making TV commercials for Sasson blue jeans, investing in Upper East Side restaurants, judging beauty pageants and hanging out with a wide range of New York celebrities.

It takes a special athlete to capture New York sports fans' imagination while effectively juggling on- and off-ice demands. Despite the potential distractions, Duguay always kept his focus on hockey in his playing days -- turning in a 40-goal season at the height of his fame in 1981-82.

Two decades later, Duguay is still all about hockey. Asked to recall a favorite moment from those early Ranger days, he instantly talks about spring of 1979, when he played on a team that reached the Stanley Cup Finals by beating the heavily favored Islanders in six games. It's an experience he cherishes above all others from his New York years.

"The Stanley Cup run is still my best memory," Duguay said. "Not only because I got so close to winning the Stanley Cup, but because it was a time where hockey was being played a certain way. It was still very much a bunch of old-school type of players who were still playing, and I happened to be part of those type of players."

Indeed, despite the constant call of celebrity, Duguay was really just an old-time hockey player. He played with reckless abandon and intense determination while at the same time having fun. He was tough enough to battle through numerous injuries during his career, including a severed leg tendon that cost him 30 games in 1980-81, and to later come out of retirement to play minor-league hockey purely for the love of the game.

And then, of course, there was his flowing brown hair that never seemed to lose its bounce no matter how intense the action. In the eyes of many fans, Duguay's hair was his trademark. He played 863 of his 864 career NHL games without a helmet, only briefly opting for headgear after suffering a concussion with the Los Angeles Kings in 1989.

Playing without a helmet was never a problem for Duguay.
"I enjoyed playing without a helmet and I know I played against guys who had a certain amount of respect for each other because of that," Duguay recalled. "You would seldom see a boarding penalty back then because you just wouldn't hit a guy from behind like that. ... I think the type of game being played today is so much different than what it was 15 or 20 years ago. Maybe guys were way too nice to each other in those days, in terms of how we played, so there was a lot more finesse."

Duguay's stylish hair and finesse with the puck made him an overnight fan favorite, and he responded by averaging 25 goals per season over his first three years in New York.

Those impressive numbers helped him earn a spot on Team Canada for the 1981 Canada Cup. A month of international hockey alongside Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur and others set the tone for Duguay's best season with the Blueshirts -- a remarkable 40-goal, 76-point performance and All-Star Game berth in 1981-82.

He truly played his best hockey under the constant glare of the New York media, and seemed to thrive on the pressure that came with off-ice celebrity.

"It made me want to play even harder because of all the attention I was getting," said Duguay. "I felt like more eyes were focused on me, therefore there was more pressure to perform, which brought the best out of me."

Duguay first left the Rangers in 1983, when he was traded to Detroit and became one of Steve Yzerman's first NHL teammates. He continued to flourish with the Red Wings, registering a career-high 89 points in 1984-85. He later played in Pittsburgh before coming back to the Rangers in a trade with the Pens on Jan. 21, 1987.

The second tour of duty in New York was brief, lasting just 82 regular-season games. In early 1988, Duguay was traded to Los Angeles, where he concluded his NHL career and remained for several years after retirement.

Despite all of his travels, Duguay looks back first and foremost on his time in New York, and says he never took the Garden Faithful's admiration for granted.

"There was no place like New York," said Duguay. "I played in different cities, and those other cities were good. But there was nothing like playing in Madison Square Garden, especially when you're playing well. When you're playing well, the fans love you and there's no better place. You can get a reaction out of them just like that, and I knew what to do to get a reaction."

During his years with the Rangers, Duguay was part of one of the great rivalries in NHL history. A Rangers-Islanders game in that era was as intense as sports can get, and Duguay experienced the thrill of the 1979 playoff upset as well as three other playoff series against the Islanders.

"We didn't hate them personally, but we hated losing to them," Duguay said of the Islanders.

Duguay's bond with the fans and connection to the Rangers organization was so strong that he found himself drawn back to The Garden on June 14, 1994, when he attended Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals against Vancouver. He was there when a later generation of Blueshirts lifted the trophy that had eluded so many of his own Ranger teams.

"I made it here for the last game, just so I could witness it because of what I went through and knowing the frustrations of the fans," said Duguay, who sat with Rod Gilbert and other former teammates at that game. "So I guess I wanted to be there to share that with them."

By the time he attended Game 7, Duguay was two years removed from his last pro hockey game, and five years removed from his last NHL action. At that time, he was living in Southern California with his wife, supermodel and fitness guru Kim Alexis, and their children, who had taken up hockey.

One day, he was asked to help out as his kids' youth hockey coach.

"I was never interested in coaching," he said. "My sons were out there playing and they needed a coach. So I just went out there. I didn't know if I knew anything about coaching."

Working with kids in California, Duguay drew on his own experience as a player and thought back to the coaches he had with the Rangers.

"Every coach I had in the NHL was the right coach at the right time, whether it was good or bad," Duguay said. "You're going to learn from a good coach or a bad coach, once you get into the coaching business, because you're going to know what to do or what not to do. I had Freddie Shero and Herb Brooks with the Rangers and then when I moved on I had some time with Scotty Bowman and played for Team Canada, so I had some good influences."

In Laguna Hills, Calif., Duguay developed an unexpected love of coaching. He spent six years in the youth leagues before looking toward the next level -- an opportunity to work with a new developmental minor-league team Jacksonville, Fla.

In 2002, Duguay was hired as the Jacksonville Barracudas' first head coach. He held that position for the next four years as the team transitioned into the Southern Professional Hockey League. During his first season behind the bench, he even came out of retirement at age 45 to appear in two games with the Barracudas.

Duguay thrilled Madison Square Garden crowds with his drive, intensity and scoring prowess.

Now 49, Duguay says many of the players on the Jacksonville team had never heard of him before joining the Barracudas, but his past as an NHL player made it easier to coach in the minors.

"I think it makes it easier, because if you've been there and played at the highest level of hockey, you become credible," he said.

Duguay's many hats in Jacksonville also included the general manager's position, and he remains with the team today in the role of Special Advisor. One of Duguay's main goals in this capacity is to bring NHL hockey to the local fan base.

"I'm very happy with where I live, and what I've been trying to do is bring the highest level of hockey to Jacksonville, Fla., so I won't have to move," Duguay said. "My efforts have not just been in coaching, but in trying to help bring the NHL to Jacksonville. First, we want to move up from where we're at to a higher minor-league level and then eventually have an NHL team. ... I'm just totally concentrated on hockey in Jacksonville."

Despite his current focus on Jacksonville, there is no questioning Duguay's enduring popularity with New York sports fans. Nearly two decades after his last game with the Rangers, he is often back in the Big Apple for special guest appearances. His next visit takes place on Monday at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, where both Duguay and Kim Alexis will compete in the Continental Airlines U.S. Open Celebrity Pro-Am Tennis Tournament.

"I still get recognized quite a bit," Duguay said of his returns to New York. "It's different, though, because it's now the older fans that recognize me from back in the 1970s and 1980s. They always have something nice to say, and once you've been away from it, you kind of miss being appreciated the way you were."
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