Ducks Did Well, but Kariya Could Have Put Them Over the Top

They Skated For 8, But They Couldn't Sign 9.

Put that on a T-shirt, in big plum and jade letters, and you can wear the very essence of the Mighty Ducks' inaugural season around the house.

Best of all, no visit to the Disney Store at your neighborhood mall required.

The Ducks skated for eight, all right--deep into the month of March, leaving webbed foot prints all over long-standing league expansion victory records as well as the backs of defending Stanley Cup finalists.

The Ducks, born of NHL leftovers and career minor leaguers who saw no shame in dressing like large skating eggplants, won more games (33) than any expansion team to clutch and grab before them and finished with more points (71) than six established teams, including the one Wayne Gretzky plays on.

This is the stuff "D2"s and "D3"s are made of, except on real ice, the bad guys with the forbidding foreign-sounding names--Makarov, Larionov, Garpenlov--beat the Ducks six straight and clinch the eighth and final playoff spot in the Pacific Division.

San Jose, not Anaheim, will be traveling to Detroit next week for a first-round playoff series. The difference, much to the chagrin of current Duck and former Shark General Manager Jack Ferreira, was San Jose's 6-0 season sweep of the Ducks. Split those games and it's Guy Hebert, not Arturs Irbe, hunkering down to face Sergei Fedorov

Might it have been different if Ferreira had been able to sign Paul Kariya, No. 9 on Team Canada's roster and No. 1 on the Ducks' 1993 draft list?

Amid the P.A. announcements at Wednesday night's finale thanking Duck fans for their support and reminding them not to miss Saturday's merchandise clearance sale in the Pond parking lot, the team forgot a big one:

Paul Kariya is in the building.

Yes, it was true. Kariya, who may or may not play for the Ducks this decade, finally saw the Ducks play a home game, No. 84 on the schedule. Kariya remains unsigned, continues to hold out for Nancy Kerrigan money ($2 million a year), but if nothing else, the Ducks can always say they got him to a game.

Kariya flew down from his parents' Vancouver home on an invitation from Duck Coach Ron Wilson--after receiving clearance from his agent. Negotiations are at an impasse, no more talks are scheduled for another month, but that didn't prevent the Ducks from trotting out Kariya for a morning press conference.

Since his return from Lillehammer, where he assisted on Canada's silver medal in ice hockey, Kariya has been keeping tabs on the team that made him the fourth selection of the 1993 entry draft.

"It's just been amazing, the season they've had," Kariya said. "They're a hard-working, disciplined team . . . They've had a dream season."

Dream, yes. Playoff, no.

Could five weeks of Kariya have changed that?

"I don't know, we haven't done too badly down the stretch," said Ferreira, pointing to the Ducks' 8-5 record in their last 13 games before Wednesday.

"He probably would have helped us more over 84 games."

Yet, since March 1, when Kariya officially became available to the Ducks, Anaheim has lost four games by a single goal and has been shut out four times. The Ducks will end the season with the lowest-ranked power play in the league and fewer goals than any team except Ottawa, Hartford and Tampa Bay.

"I like to think I could have come in and helped the team and added a little offense," Kariya said.

As for the He's Too Small To Help Now theory, Kariya said, "I think I can play any style of game I'm asked to play. I think I could step in now without any problem."

As for the He's Too Green To Help Now theory, Kariya said, "I really enjoy pressure hockey, playoff-style hockey, where every game is do or die. That's my kind of hockey."

Pierre Gauthier, the Ducks' assistant general manager, said Kariya would have helped the team "if nothing else, on the power play" and during crunch time.

"We have lost a lot of games by one goal," Gauthier said, "when the other team's best player beats us at the end. Larionov. Makarov. Joe Nieuwendyk with Calgary.

"With Paul Kariya, we'd have someone who could counteract their best players."

Maybe next season.

Kariya said he is "very optimistic that this is something we can work out over the summer" and denies those bound-for-Europe rumors.

"I was at the NHL Players Assn. office in Toronto and some reporters were there wanting to talk to me," Kariya said. "The first thing they told me was, 'There's a wire story that says you just signed a long-term contract with Sweden.'

"I laughed and asked them, 'What I'd get?'

"Europe is an option, but that's all it is. First and foremost, I'd like to play for Anaheim."

About 17,134 in the house every home game would second that emotion.

Forget the sparklers and the cannon blasts. As ice-breakers go, the Ducks' first season was a rousing success, more fun than a barrel full of Ram and Angel games. But the real fan appreciation night will be the one when the Ducks get Paul Kariya's name on that dotted line.

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