Things are just Ducky for Kariya
By JOHN DELLAPINA
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Paul Kariya couldn't have just up and left - restricted free agents don't get that chance. But he could have made it virtually impossible for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to keep him.
And who would have blamed him? Even at top NHL dollar, it can get old being the poster boy for a franchise that pursues marketing the corporate brand over winning.
But Kariya didn't leave. He didn't even threaten to do so.
And now, the gifted left winger is being repaid with a crack at the Stanley Cup.
"He easily could have wanted to go somewhere else or he could have made some qualms about it in the papers and just made it hard," said center Steve Rucchin, the only Duck who has been with the team as long as Kariya. "It just shows how great a leader he is and how much he wanted to win here. And it's great that he's getting rewarded for that and getting his opportunity now."
The final step in seizing that opportunity begins tonight at Meadowlands Arena, when Anaheim takes on the Devils in Game1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Yes, it's Kariya's first Finals. Heck, this is the first time he's ever made it past the second round of the playoffs.
And, truth be told, there wasn't anybody inside or outside the Anaheim organization who expected this when the season began.
"I think the way you look at it is (the Devils), when they started training camp, they hoped and expected to be here," Anaheim coach Mike Babcock said. "We hoped that we would be in the playoffs. We hoped to be in the hunt after 20 games is what our goal was."
Before the energetic Babcock was hired as coach and Adam Oates was signed as a free agent, and Petr Sykora was acquired from the Devils, there was little to recommend the Ducks as budding Cup contenders coming off a dreadful 2002-03 season.
Which is why, with his contract due to expire, Kariya began to be asked in the middle of last season whether he'd prefer to just move on and leave the frugal, foundering franchise behind.
Though he admitted to frustration, Kariya refused to fuel speculation that might like to play elsewhere. He did not muse about moving to a franchise that would surround him with high-priced talent rather than unload stars like Teemu Selanne to save money and, in the process, allow the promise of back-to-back winning seasons in 1998-99 and '99-00 devolve into a combined 54-83-19-8 record the next two years.
And on July 31, after a month of restricted free agency, Kariya agreed to a one-year, $10-million deal to remain with Anaheim.
"I think for the franchise it means everything," said Oates. "Through the slow times or the not so good times the last few years, he's been the focal point, the guy who had carried the load.
"Now, obviously, we've had a better year and a fantastic playoffs so far. And you couldn't be happier for him because it shows what a great, quality guy he is."
To hear Kariya tell it, he's also a bit of a clairvoyant. Asked yesterday whether he was surprised to be sitting at a press conference on the eve of the Finals, he smiled and replied: "No. I'm not surprised."
Asked what was different about this Ducks team, he said: "Well, we're a better team."
Things Are Just Ducky For Kariya
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