To you it might have looked like just another first-round playoff series between two middle-of-the-pack teams in gauche jerseys. To the suits at NHL headquarters, however, the Western Conference quarterfinal series between the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Phoenix Coyotes was about something bigger: the NHL's manifest destiny, otherwise known as sold-out games in Sun Belt cities. The SRO crowds in Anaheim and Phoenix were hard evidence of the growth of the sport. They held promise of golf junkets disguised as business trips. We have seen the face of the NHL in the 21st century, and it is...tanned.
Then again, the face may be painted a ghastly white and have duck feathers glued around its mouth, from which a stream of fake blood trickles. Coyotes fans were asked by the team's front office to wear white to America West Arena on Sunday afternoon for Game 3. Some of them—such as the guy who looked as if he had just taken a bite out of a duck—went above and beyond the call. Inside the arena, Phoenix's workmanlike 4-1 win left it trailing two games to one in the best of seven. Outside, it was 92° (but it was a dry heat). In addition to being the hot series, this was also the hot series, featuring a trio of the game's brightest young stars.
Anaheim forwards Teemu Selanne, 26, and Paul Kariya, 22, who finished second and third, respectively, among NHL scorers this season, are the most exciting line-mates this side of the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux and the most mismatched roommates this side of Felix and Oscar. The Coyotes countered with Keith Tkachuk, their 25-year-old captain, whose 52 goals this season led the league. Aside from suffering occasional lapses in judgment against Anaheim, such as when he would use his stick on some hapless Duck as if it were a broadsword, Tkachuk was having a terrific series, scoring three goals in the first three games.
Do we include Jeremy Roenick, Tkachuk's teammate and golfing partner, under the heading of "young stars"? We do not. Roenick is 27 and lately has been feeling older than that. At the request of Phoenix coach Don Hay, Roenick was a two-way dervish in this series, attaching himself to Kariya like graffiti in the defensive zone and also contributing a goal and three assists. By Sunday evening the workload had begun to take its toll on Roenick. "I'm so tired, it takes me 15 minutes to get out of bed in the morning," he said after Game 3. "This is rough."
The good news for the Coyotes was that Roenick's efforts had begun to make things rough on Kariya—and, by extension, Selanne, the most frequent beneficiary of Kariya's artful setups. After scoring two goals apiece in Game 1, a 4-2 win in Anaheim, the Ducks' dynamic duo was held to one goal each over the next two games. Since the start of Game 2, another 4-2 home victory for the Ducks, Anaheim's top line has been hounded by a hastily concocted checking line of Roenick, Darrin Shannon and former Duck Bob Corkum. So industriously have Roenick and his linemates gone about their business that as the series progresses, it wouldn't be surprising to see them follow Selanne and Kariya to the rest room between periods.
The play of Selanne and Kariya in Game 1 lent credence to a statement made by Coyotes defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky a few days before the series started. Apparently still traumatized from having been traded last year from Anaheim to the Winnipeg Jets (who relocated to Phoenix after the 1995-96 season) in a deal that brought Selanne to the Ducks, Tverdovsky said his former team had just "one good line and a good goalie." It was an accurate, if impolitic, statement. Anaheim goalie Guy Hebert, the pride of Division III Hamilton College, won 29 games in the regular season and, along with Selanne and Kariya, was instrumental in getting the Ducks (36-33-13) to the postseason for the first time in their four-year history.
Tverdovsky, who also said he "hated" his former club and wanted to "kick their butts," was accorded a traitor's welcome at The Pond, where he was booed whenever he touched the puck. The Ducks were delighted by the din created by their fans, who waved Fowl Towels and, at the request of Anaheim coach Ron Wilson, wore white. This sartorial solidarity provoked some Coyotes to accuse the Ducks of plagiarism: Attending postseason games dressed in white was a hallowed playoff rite of Winnipeg fans. Roenick described Anaheim's attempts to "white out" The Pond as "half-assed." Phoenix left wing Jim McKenzie said, "With all the resources Disney has, you'd think they could come up with an original idea." Not if you watched D3: The Mighty Ducks, you wouldn't.
Wilson, in fact, is an innovative fellow. While riding on the team bus in Chicago on March 28, he looked up at a high-rise apartment building and glimpsed a daydreaming girl peering out a window. Although the Ducks were one of the hottest teams in the second half of the season, losing only three of their final 23 games, they were experiencing a brief funk. Before that night's game against the Blackhawks, Wilson told his players to close their eyes and reflect on what they used to daydream about when they were kids—scoring the game-winning goal, making a great save, that type of thing.
Sure, some guys probably spent the time thinking about pizza or Tyra Banks, but the Ducks played an inspired game, won 4-3 and went undefeated in their last seven games. Few could have foreseen such a happy ending to the regular season last Oct. 30, when a 6-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks dropped Anaheim to 1-9-2, its worst start ever. Anaheim's return to respectability coincided with the return of Kariya, who missed last summer's World Cup and the first 11 games of the season with an abdominal strain. He amassed his 99 points in only 69 games. Had Buffalo Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek not almost single-handedly guided the Sabres to first place in the Northeast Division, Kariya would probably be the leading candidate for the NHL's MVP award.
The handsome, polite and electrifyingly talented Kariya is already the NHL's preeminent poster boy. He will take his ambassador's act overseas next fall when the Ducks and the Canucks start the 1997-98 season with a two-game series in Japan. Kariya, who is of Japanese descent, was asked after last Saturday's practice if he was looking forward to the chance to see the land of his ancestors, to explore his roots. He did not warm to the subject. "Both my parents were born in North America," he said. Had he read Shogun? "No."