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Salei Set to Push Reputation Aside

Hockey: Duck defenseman returns after serving 10-game suspension.

October 29, 1999|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bad man goes free tonight, free to play hockey again after serving a 10-game suspension for almost breaking another player's neck.

Funny, but up close, Ruslan Salei of the Mighty Ducks looks more human than demon. Salei, who turns 25 on Tuesday, has a warm smile, a hearty laugh, a firm handshake and the worst reputation in the National Hockey League.

So, to answer the burning question right off, Salei said, "No, I don't think so," when asked if he was a dirty player.

Fair enough, but certainly it's only one man's opinion. There are many, many others who do not agree.

Salei, a defenseman, has paid a steep price for his shove in the back that sent Dallas center Mike Modano crashing headfirst into the end boards four minutes into the second period of the Ducks' opener Oct. 2 at Reunion Arena.

Modano suffered a concussion, a broken nose and a strained neck ligament when his head struck the bottom portion of the boards. He was sidelined for three games, but has recovered fully and has a team-leading six goals.

Salei suffered the slings and arrows of an entire continent.

It will be seen tonight, when the Ducks play host to the Washington Capitals at the Arrowhead Pond, whether the hometown fans have forgiven him. They and Salei's teammates might be the only ones in North America in his corner.

A stupid play by a stupid player, to paraphrase the words of Dallas Coach Ken Hitchcock. Thick as a brick, the Hockey News wrote in an editorial. He should be kicked out of the league forever, have his passport taken away, Dallas winger Brett Hull said. A vast majority of voters responding to a Canadian Web site poll agreed with Hull--at least about banning Salei from the NHL.

"I know they're ticked," Salei said. "There's nothing I can do about it now. It's an accident. I know I'm not going to change anybody's view. I'm trying not to take what anybody says too deeply. If you're going to worry about everything that's said about you, you're going to be an old man at 35."

Salei hopes to speak to Modano in a quiet moment, perhaps on the ice when the teams play again at Dallas on Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving. Salei wants to ask Modano if he's all right, to explain that he didn't intend to hurt him, that he simply didn't want him lurking around Guy Hebert's net for a rebound.

But, honestly, Salei seems a little nervous about what the reaction might be from Modano and his teammates.

The Stars initially vowed revenge, then backed off when Modano pleaded for peace when the teams met Oct. 8 at the Pond.

Dallas has already been down that road, exacting revenge last season after Phoenix Coyote center Jeremy Roenick leveled Modano with a tough check away from play. Dallas defenseman Derian Hatcher broke Roenick's jaw in the next meeting, drawing a seven-game suspension.

The best thing for Salei might simply be to roll with the punches and the taunts, and keep skating with his head up and his stick down. Well, maybe he should keep his stick up a little bit. After all, that's his game. He is a rough-and-tumble sort, whose hero is former Detroit Red Wing defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov.

Duck Coach Craig Hartsburg spoke with Salei this week and his message was straightforward: Don't change your game. Salei promised he wouldn't.

"Guys who try to play physical, they've got the image of dirty players," Salei said. "I never complain about physical play against me. Guys who play soft, who play only in the open ice, they say that stuff. They're trying to complain all the time."

It's difficult to find a player who plays the same style as Salei who hasn't been suspended at least once. Hatcher has been suspended four times in his career, including once for 10 games in 1991-92.

Salei also is a repeat offender.

He was suspended for the first five games of last season for tripping Daniel Briere of Phoenix in an exhibition game. Salei also got a two-game suspension in 1997-98 for head-butting Sergei Krivokrasov, then of Chicago, during a one-sided fight in the same game in which Gary Suter delivered his infamous cross-check to Paul Kariya's jaw.

"The first few days, it was in my mind a lot," Salei said of the Modano incident. "It made me think it was my fault how he fell. I didn't try to hurt him. There's nothing I can do now about it. It happens 100 times in a game when you're pushing people away from the net. I was trying to push him away from my space."

Salei agrees with the notion that it was a thoughtless play, but not in the way others mean it.

"When you look at the review on TV, you can see he doesn't have the puck, you can see he's off balance," Salei said. "There's not even a half-second for me. I didn't have time to figure out whether he had the puck or was in balance. There's no time to think.

"It just happened. There's nothing I can do about it. I'm sorry about it. I was really happy he was fine. The way he fell was so scary."

Everyone seems to agree on that point, including Salei's biggest defenders--the Ducks.

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