There used to be some concern that Paul Kariya's game would never be the same after he suffered the concussion that ended his 1997-98 season Feb. 1.
After more than two months of play, it's safe to conclude he has changed. For the better. If anything, the Mighty Duck star is more aggressive than ever. Instead of turning into a timid deer on the ice, avoiding contact at all costs, he now dishes out a little punishment in addition to all those assists.
"If there's a hit there, then I'll take it," Kariya said. "I'm not going to go out of my way and get away from my game. But if there's something there, I'm going to take it."
These days if you turn on a Mighty Duck game and see Kariya sitting in the penalty box, it isn't an aberration. After Friday night's game against the Washington Capitals, he had 24 penalty minutes in 27 games.
Over two seasons, from 1995 to 1997, Kariya had a total of 26 penalty minutes in 151 games.
In 1996 and 1997 he won the Lady Byng Trophy, given to "the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability."
The only "Lady" Kariya might draw comparisons to this year is action heroine Lara Croft from the "Tomb Raider" video game.
Just ask Pittsburgh's Alexei Kovalev. Kovalev, who was with the New York Rangers at the time, paid a visit to the Arrowhead Pond last month and caught an elbow to the head from Kariya.
Kariya nailed Boston's Ray Bourque against the boards in the Ducks' home opener--a good, clean check, but it got the point across.
As he skates around the ice, Kariya holds his stick just a little bit higher.
"I think maybe, not consciously, he's sending a message to other players: If you come in, you're going to get a stick," Duck goaltender Guy Hebert said. "He's got to try to protect himself when he's out there.
"I think when he goes into the corner, he's going into the offensive, of trying to hit people rather than maybe trying to spin away and get out of the way all the time."
It's definitely easier to be a tough guy knowing Stu Grimson has your back. But Kariya appears willing to take matters into his own hands.
He was caught off-guard on the play that ended his season in February. After scoring a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks, he was pausing to enjoy the moment when Gary Suter cross-checked him in the jaw.
It's Kariya who does the surprising now, although he wouldn't make a hit as dirty as Suter's. Sometimes opposing players come away from a check looking a little surprised to see it was No. 9 who just crunched them.
"I think I protect myself a little bit better this year," Kariya said. "Hopefully that continues. I want to be playing this game as long as I can and not be having an injury like I did last year.
"I can try and stop guys from taking advantage of me out there, show them that if they're going to give it, they're going to get something back."
It's not as if Kariya turned into a bad guy. Off the ice, he has been more accessible and friendly to the media than at any other time in his career.
A few minutes before talking about his tough-guy tactics, he was exchanging pleasantries with a young visitor to the team's practice facility and signing autographs for the lucky kid.
So he didn't undergo a personality transplant. Actually, he said, he's just getting back to his roots.
"When I was in minor hockey, I used to be running around," Kariya said. "I wasn't as good offensively. I'd play against the other team's best players and hit and start fights. I've done it before, but not for a long time."
It's hard to imagine him ever doing it. Paul Kariya a goon?
"I wasn't a goon," he said. "But I did make contact a lot."
In the NHL, he has made a name for himself by scoring a lot. He hasn't lost his touch and is among the NHL leaders with 33 points.
But he's such a perfectionist. It isn't enough. Not even his scoring streak of 11 games--the longest in the NHL this season--convinced him that he's having a good season offensively.
"I don't think I've played the kind of game I want to play," Kariya said. "It's been an up-and-down season. At the start of the season, guys were off so long, it took a while to get going. I got going for a little bit but haven't played anywhere near as well as I can."
Yet, he has played well enough to be a contender for the Hart Trophy given to the league's MVP.
One thing we know for sure: He won't be adding to his Lady Byng Trophy collection. "It's never been a goal," Kariya said. "I'm not expecting it now."
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Kariya's penalties in minutes, year-by-year: *--*
Year Games Penalties Minutes 1994-95 47 2 4 1995-96 82 10 20 1996-97 69 3 6 1997-98 22 10 23 1998-99 27 12 24