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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Kariya makes comeback straight from a Disney movie


Globe and Mail Update
Saturday, June 7, 2003

Anaheim, Calif. — At 6:16 of the second period, it looked over for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' Paul Kariya.

There was Kariya, lying flat on the ice at the Arrowhead Pond, his eyes closed, his body still, the result of a crushing, open-ice hit by the New Jersey Devils' Scott Stevens in Saturday's sixth game of the Stanley Cup final.

All kinds of images, most of them frightening, were immediately conjured up.

Of Kariya's lengthy concussion history which, less than four years ago, threatened his National Hockey League career and forced him to wear improved headgear and a new mouthguard.

Of similar hits by Stevens on Eric Lindros, Ron Francis and Shane Willis, bodychecks which changed the course of playoff series and professional careers.

The first thought was that Kariya wasn't coming back, not Saturday night, not for the rest of the playoffs, maybe not anytime soon.

Instead, there he was, only four minutes later - back on the bench, back on the ice, testing his legs to see if they wobbled in any way. And when they didn't, he went out for the next shift to a standing ovation from the capacity crowd.

"I didn't like the hit obviously," Kariya was saying afterwards, "but that's Scott's game. I thought he was a little bit late. It's water under the bridge. It woke me up."

Did it ever.

Seven minutes after returning to action, Kariya wrote one of those dramatic, against-all-odds comeback stories that even the Ducks' parent company, the Disney Corporation, might dismiss as too cornball.

Kariya gathered in a pass from centre Adam Oates in full stride on his own side of centre. As the ice opened up, Kariya barreled down the wing and wired a slapshot past goaltender Martin Brodeur's outstretched glove hand.

This might not be Bob Baun, scoring the Stanley Cup-clinching goal after breaking a bone in his foot earlier in the game, but it came close.

It was dramatic, it was unexpected and it put an end, once and for all, to questions about Kariya's heart and courage.

Petr Sykora, Kariya's teammate, played with the Devils until just last season and witnessed all of Stevens' myth-making hits.

"It's tough to come back from a hit like that," said Sykora. "I got hit like that (in 1999 against the Dallas Stars) and I didn't come back in the Stanley Cup finals, so I know how it is. But Paul? He came back."

Kariya's goal, his first of the series, restored the Ducks' three-goal lead and they went on to record a 5-2 win in Saturday's sixth game, setting the stage for a one-game, winner-take-all showdown Monday night in New Jersey.

A series which began so listlessly and with so little drama now has a little hate going, thanks to Stevens, who, at 39, remains a primal force on the Devils' blueline.

Even if the players Stevens bodychecks do not require hospitalization in the same numbers they did once did, there is a wariness among forwards as they venture into his patch of ice.

It's a lesson Kariya forgot for a split second, giving Stevens an opportunity to lower the boom on him. On the play, Kariya picked up the puck in his skates and made a backhand pass, which he then turned to watch.

Bad move. Stevens, the human battering ram, took advantage to squash him like a bug. Happily, Kariya didn't lose consciousness and after a quick once-over by the team doctors in the dressing room, received clearance to play.

"I sensed him (Stevens) there, but I thought I had a little more time," said Kariya. "That's Scott's game. He's very patient with his hits and he times them right. But I thought it was a little late."

Colin Campbell, the NHL's executive viee president and director of hockey operations, didn't agree though. Campbell reviewed the play before the game was over and cleared Stevens of any wrongdoing by the midpoint of the third period.

Campbell suggested he considered two factors in assessing the hit - one, if Stevens used his elbow or shoulder to deliver the check; and two, if the hit came late. According to Campbell's statement, a frame-by-frame review of the play showed, first, that Stevens struck Kariya with his shoulder; and second, contact came less than a second after Kariya made the pass.

So Stevens will not face disciplinary action or a possible suspension for Monday's one game, winner-take-all showdown.

"Hey, it's a physical game," said Stevens. "You can't let your guard down."

Kariya finished the game with a goal and two assists, putting an end to a scoring slump which saw him produce just a single assist in the first five games of the series.

How much of a lift did Kariya's return provide?

Plenty, said the Ducks' Steve Rucchin.

"YOu lose a guy like Paul, that could be a huge blow," said Rucchin. "I felt confident in our game, but it was definitely a lift when he came back. Then to see him go to the net like that, you can't say enough about his desire in that situation."

Or his will to win, or his leadership either.

Kariya was asked: As a kid, playing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup in his driveway, how did it end?

"Well, winning obviously," he replied, "but when I was a kid growing up, I didn't have that vivid an imagination. I was just going out there to play."

Which is what he'll need to do again tonight, for the Ducks to prevail. ROBTv Workopolis