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Mighty Bond

The Ducks' Kariya and Rucchin have built a close relationship

May 25, 2003|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

This was a familiar Mighty Duck sibling situation. Paulie and Stevie were locked in another don't-make-me-turn-this-car-around moment.

Steve Rucchin went into the corner after the puck and Paul Kariya, looking very much like a little brother, followed. As they scrapped through the practice drill, Rucchin accidentally dropped Kariya with an elbow.

"I guess that shows why Paul doesn't come into the corners and play some defense during games," Rucchin said later.

Kariya, informed of this, responded: "I want the videotape of that to go to the league. There has to be a suspension."

Such talk came later.

After clearing his head from the rogue elbow, the 5-foot-10, 182-pound Kariya went back into the drills and this time he tried to wrestle the big lug to the ice. He finally succeeded in hauling down the 6-3, 212-pound Rucchin and, then, as an exclamation point, Kariya tacked on a playful rabbit punch to the head as the two began to untangle.

"That's a big issue there," Kariya said, smiling. "You see that guy hit me with the elbow?"

Rucchin, informed of this, responded: "Paul shouldn't lead with his face."

After nine seasons, you'd think these two could learn to get along. They sit next to each other in the dressing room. They have often been linemates throughout their careers. They have been through the gantlet with the Ducks.

And, after nine seasons, they are having the time of their lives.

There are those in the Duck dressing room who have waited longer to win a Stanley Cup; Steve Thomas has been kicking around the NHL 19 seasons and is getting his first kick at the Cup. But Kariya and Rucchin have dealt with personal crises and family tragedy, not to mention the outrageous slings and arrows that came with being a Mighty Duck for nine seasons.

Both arrived in 1994, the franchise's second season. Both are, finally, playing for the Stanley Cup.

*

The subject was Kariya. The response was perfect deadpan shtick.

Rucchin, sitting at his locker stall, with Kariya's spot on his right and the wall to the training room on the left, went into his act.

"I have a wall on one side ... and a wall on the other side," he said.

"Sometimes I want to cut a hole here," Rucchin continued, pointing at the training room. "Then I could have someone to talk with."

Never once did Rucchin smile. Never once did anyone believe him.

Nine seasons.

Kariya was the whiz kid from Vancouver on the Pacific Coast, who was charted and scouted, not to mention tape-measured, from the moment he first laced up a pair of skates, through junior hockey and then shipped to the NHL for immediate stardom.

Rucchin, the big unknown from Thunder Bay, located at the northern end of Lake Superior, whom the Ducks discovered skating around the University of Western Ontario while working toward a medical degree.

"There are not many differences between us," Rucchin said. "Maybe I got to play on a few more outdoor rinks as a kid."

Both have labored in Anaheim. Kariya under the microscope, especially by the Canadian media that seemed to pity him serving time in what they perceived as the NHL's penal colony. Rucchin went about his business anonymously -- until the last two months -- perfectly happy to play Kariya's Tonto.

Both have had career-threatening injuries. Kariya spent a blurry six months after suffering a concussion in 1997-98. Rucchin wore out a path to the surgeon because of freak injuries -- broken cheek bone, broken nose, broken ankle -- that broke Duck dreams the last two seasons.

Both have dealt with loss in the last year. Kariya's father, T.K. Kariya, died from a heart attack in December. Last June, Rucchin's brother, Larry Rucchin, died after a two-year struggle with cancer.

And Kariya and Rucchin are still in Anaheim.

"I feel like a traitor, but I am sort of rooting for [the Ducks] because of some of the people involved," said San Jose Coach Ron Wilson, who was the Mighty Duck coach for four seasons. "Especially Paul and Steve. It's been a tough few years for the two of them, with Steve's brother dying of cancer and Paul's dad dying. Those are special stories.

"Those two guys have been loyal to an organization that didn't always do the right thing for them. And that has become rare in sports. You don't see much loyalty anymore."

Loyal to the team, sure, but to each other as well.

"Nine years knowing each other is a long time, Rooch probably thinks it's been too long," Kariya said. "We have always had a great relationship, on and off ice."

*

Nine seasons.

For most of them, Rucchin had a ringside seat for the constant Kariya dissection.

Kariya was the Ducks' centerpiece, their first first-round pick, fifth overall in 1993. Some thought he was too small to play in the NHL. Some thought he was the next Wayne Gretzky.

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