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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT

Kariya's Spirit Is Intact Even if His Body's Broken

April 28, 1999|HELENE ELLIOTT

Is there a star more star-crossed than Paul Kariya?

And was there a team less able to withstand the loss of its captain, leader and best player than the Mighty Ducks, who were swept out of the playoffs Tuesday despite a feisty effort in a 3-0 loss to the Red Wings at the Pond?

Proving the cynic's adage that no good deed goes unpunished, Kariya broke his right foot Sunday while blocking a shot by Nicklas Lidstrom during a Detroit power play. This most brilliant of offensive talents, the NHL's third-leading scorer this season, was injured making a defensive play.

Yet, it's not a surprise. How he was injured reflects who he is and how valiantly he refused to accept the inevitability of losing to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.

"He's paid the price for his team," said Duck Coach Craig Hartsburg, who couldn't say the same about many other Duck players. "You don't have to look too far to know why he's the captain."

During a season, Kariya blocks hundreds of shots. Some are inadvertent. This one was planned. "I really respect him. He doesn't have to play that way, but he realizes that's what it takes to win," left wing Ted Drury said. "He's played unbelievable. I've never seen him play so hard."

Center Steve Rucchin, who suffered a broken bone in his foot last season when he accidentally blocked a shot by Kariya in practice, suspected something might be wrong Sunday. "I saw it, but you don't really know the extent of it," Rucchin said. "The game's going on and you don't think about it."

Kariya has had time to think about it and he has come to this conclusion:

If time somehow were turned back and he again found himself killing a penalty in the third period of a game the Ducks desperately needed to win, and if what players call a heavy shot was hurtling toward him, Kariya would not do anything different. He might turn his foot to meet the puck at a different angle and hope his skate boot would protect him, but he would not dodge it, just as he would not dodge the responsibility of doing everything he can for a team that needs every player to give as much and as he does.

"I would have done the same thing. The shot was there and I blocked it," he said Tuesday, his right foot propped up next to his crutches in the Duck locker room. "I was just trying to deflect it. I wasn't trying to take the brunt of it, but that happens. It just hit me in a bad spot, on the outside of my foot. I just tried to knock it away, like this," he added, making a sweeping motion with his bandaged foot.

With that well-intentioned move went the Ducks' slim hopes of making a competition out of a mismatch--and another line was appended to Kariya's medical history of unusual and unfortunate events.

It is a sad truth that he has had so many X-rays during his NHL career. He saw the W-shaped fracture on the films of his right foot and immediately knew he was in trouble. "It's ugly," he said. "I could tell it's broken."

Injuries may be the only foe capable of stopping him.

In five NHL seasons, he has played every game only twice. Playing all 82 games this season, though, was crucial. He had a lot to prove after missing most of last season because of a severe concussion, and he demonstrated his ability not only to take hits, but to give them. He was the dynamo he was in 1995-96, when he blazed his way to 50 goals and 108 points.

His head proved harder than the bones of his foot, and his season ended too soon. His foot will heal in four to six weeks, but his career seems destined to be a series of extraordinary performances broken up by mishaps that keep him off hockey's center stage.

A previous shot-blocking attempt cost him dearly late in the 1995-96 season. He felt soreness in his leg after that game and began to favor his good leg, which put stress on the muscles of his lower abdomen. Believing he had only a sore stomach muscle, he worked out as usual that summer and aggravated his injury, which was diagnosed as osteitis pubis, an inflammation of the muscles attached to the pubic bone. He couldn't play for Canada in the World Cup of Hockey in the fall of 1996 and missed the first 11 games of the 1996-97 season, a span in which the Ducks were 1-8-2.

Not long after his return, he was elbowed in the jaw by Mathieu Schneider, then of Toronto, and suffered a concussion that idled him for two games. And of course, there was the blow to the jaw from Gary Suter on Feb. 1, 1998 that knocked him out of the Nagano Olympics and out of the Duck lineup for the last 28 games of last season.

Yet, if there's a black cloud hovering above him, Kariya doesn't see it.

"I don't feel sorry for myself, and I didn't even when I was hurt last year," he said. "Everything happens for a reason. Right now, I don't know what that reason is."

There may be no reason. There are, however, many reasons to regret that his career has been so often interrupted during its prime and that injuries may keep him from realizing the greatness his talent hints he can achieve.

Would Mickey Mantle have been greater if he hadn't torn up his knee in the 1951 World Series and lost some of his speed? We will never know. Hockey fans can only hope Kariya doesn't face the same gnawing, unanswerable question.

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