Stuck Duck Although he's being held back by a lack of talented teammates, Paul Kariya of Anaheim hasn't lost his ardor for the game or his club

December 03, 2001

The reporter's cell phone rang in the taxi, and after a cursory
greeting he passed it to someone the caller, Teemu Selanne,
really wanted to talk to. "Teemulanne," Paul Kariya boomed,
sounding like the guy from the old making-copies skits on
Saturday Night Live. The NHL's most dynamic linemates of the
late 1990s, with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, are phone pals
now, separated on this night by 3,000 miles and 10 points in the
standings. Kariya was going to dinner in New York City while
Selanne, traded to the San Jose Sharks last March, was in Los
Angeles, where newspapers brimmed with tales of his suddenly
tough friend. "So," Selanne asked, "you're a fighter now?"

Kariya laughed. He's not now, nor has he ever been, a fighter,
but sometimes enough is enough. Last Thursday at practice the
Ducks were doing three-on-three battle drills--the forwards
fighting through checks and driving to the net, a splendid idea
given Anaheim's 6-0 capitulation to the Florida Panthers the
previous night--when the 5'9", 176-pound Kariya made a quick cut
and defenseman Pavel Trnka hooked him to the ice. Kariya
clambered to his skates, slashed the 6'2", 200-pound Trnka,
uttered words not heard in PG-rated Mighty Ducks films and
engaged in what would be defined in hockey's lexicon of
confrontation as a tussle but not quite a scrap.

"Everyone was acting like a hooligan at practice," Kariya would
say at the restaurant. "I was mad at how soft we'd played, and
then to see guys practice hard, be tough guys in practice.
Obviously, there was a lot of frustration. That's not me."

Kariya, an eight-year veteran, hasn't been himself for a while.
His points-per-game average has dipped each season since
1996-97, from 1.43 then to 1.02 last year. As of Sunday, through
the first 24 games of 2001-02, he'd had 10 goals, an average of
less than one every two games for only the second time since his
rookie season, and 0.79 points per game. He was manning the left
point on a Clouseau-like power play that had converted three of
its last 49 chances, and he was serving as captain on a Western
Conference doormat (7-14-3-0) that had gone 1-7-2-0 in its last
10 matches.

At 27, Kariya, a left wing, should be in his prime. Instead he's
sinking in the quicksand of a club that frequently plays to
8,000 empty seats at home. His contract, worth $10 million per
year, expires at the end of the season, but the poster boy for a
team that was fresh and fun won't become an unrestricted free
agent for another four seasons. He is a stuck Duck. Anaheim has
a few intriguing players surrounding him--Jean-Sebastien
Giguere, a goalie of some promise; Oleg Tverdovsky, an attacking
defenseman; Vitaly Vishnevski, a blue line caveman; and Jeff
Friesen, a winger perpetually on the verge of blossoming--but
coach Bryan Murray, who's in his first season with the Ducks,
concedes the team needs more size and skill to contend. The
reconstruction of Anaheim, which started in earnest when the
nearly-as-high-salaried Selanne was dealt, could be arduous and
ugly.

"I was disappointed when Selanne was traded," Kariya says. "You
talk about hockey being a two-on-one game. There's no one I'd
rather have a two-on-one with than Teemu. We had great
chemistry. We were both unselfish. Whoever was in position to
score got the puck. But together we were about half the payroll.
The fans weren't coming. If I were running the business, I would
have done something too."

If you were running the business now, Kariya was asked, what
would you do? His fork stopped in midair, then he put it down
and smiled. "Right now I'd see how I come out of the slump," he
says. "At the halfway point, if no progress is being made or the
team isn't headed in the right direction, then I'd have to make
changes. Would I trade myself? That would depend on how the team
was playing, how I was playing."

Kariya's salary is almost 30% of Anaheim's $35 million payroll.
That disparity has been a blueprint for failure for other
franchises, including the Panthers, for whom Murray was general
manager. His 1999 blockbuster trade for $10 million scorer Pavel
Bure devolved into only modest success on the ice and a schism
off it. However, the egotism that marks Bure's game stands in
marked contrast to Kariya's unselfishness. "Look at teams like
Edmonton and Calgary, which traded players with contracts they
couldn't manage and got a couple of good young players back,"
Kariya says. "All of a sudden, they're playing great."

Ducks general manager Pierre Gauthier has never discussed
trading Kariya--"No chance," he says--although he's working with
a budget set by a corporate owner, Disney, that's eager to sell
the team for the right price. Given his current level of
production, Kariya is overpriced. "The worst thing in the world
is to be overpaid for what you do," Kariya says. "Do I think I'm
overpaid? Statistically, yes. No question."

"Paul has played well and hard, and he probably would've scored
more if he'd had a complementary player," Murray says. "We have
to get a player who can help him, so the puck comes to him and he
doesn't waste energy chasing it. When you make changes [like
trading a star], you're looking for more bodies or grit or guys
with high energy. Nobody has more energy than Paul. I get here at
8:30 for a 10:30 practice, and Paul's already here. I tell him to
let me beat him to the rink. He'll listen for a day, but then
he's back."

Kariya doesn't point to the feeble power play to explain the
Ducks' low standing or make excuses about the continued absence
of his oft-injured center, Steve Rucchin. He looks in the mirror.
"I always try to see what I'm not doing that could help us win,"
says Kariya. "In terms of being captain, I wonder what I'm not
doing that would help other guys be ready or help them perform
better. There's not a guy in the league who wouldn't want to play
for a contender. It's my job to make us that contender."

Kariya's role models are Steve Yzerman, the Detroit Red Wings
captain who led his team through the Dead Wings era and came out
the other side with two Stanley Cups, and Joe Sakic, who survived
execrable Quebec Nordiques teams that morphed into champions as
the Colorado Avalanche. Anaheim has played in only three playoff
series in Kariya's seven seasons, has lost its last eight
postseason games and hasn't earned a playoff berth since 1999.
Still, Kariya believes in Murray's coaching, the draft and happy
endings.

"Lots of people would love to see him in Toronto or New York or
Montreal, an Original Six city, a hockey hotbed," says Brendan
Shanahan of the Red Wings, who has known Kariya since they played
for Canada in the 1996 World Cup, "but he doesn't bite when that
stuff is mentioned. He's 100 percent loyal to the Ducks. That's
one of the nice qualities about him."

Kariya is committed to turning Anaheim around. If he has to
settle the puck better on the power play, he will settle it. If
he has to be the more demonstrative captain that former coach
Craig Hartsburg implored that he be, he will work at being
assertive. If he has to whack a teammate in practice, he will
slice and dice like a Veg-O-Matic. Maybe trying to engrave his
initials on Trnka was out of character, but the stuck Duck would
rather fight than switch.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HENRY DIROCCO/B. BENNETT STUDIOS

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