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- S�bastien Gigu�re, 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."