Tirade Just in Time : Duck Defenseman Karpa Picks Up Pace After Dressing Down by Coach Wilson

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hockey is a simple game. Up and down. Take the body. Put the biscuit in the basket.

"Do the simple things and you can have a long career, especially if you're a defenseman," Mighty Duck Coach Ron Wilson said.

But give the puck to the guys in the other jerseys. Take bad penalties. Get caught out of position.

Simply unacceptable.

Duck defenseman David Karpa learned it's no fun getting singled out in front of your peers, being asked to explain your mistakes, being grilled about letting down your teammates.

There was Wilson, blowing a fuse on the ice on the morning of Nov. 7 at the Ducks' practice rink. His tirade was calculated, to be sure, but the message was loud and clear to Karpa.

Karpa, red-faced and ashamed, had no choice but to take the verbal beating in front of his teammates.

About the only printable response he could manage was this:

"Do you think I like screwing up? Do you think I'm doing it on purpose?"

Wilson knew the answers were "no" and "no."

But he also knew his message would be a wake-up call to Karpa. It would let him know he wasn't doing his part, wasn't living up to expectations.

When Wilson at last retreated to his office, Karpa capped his frustration by launching his helmet over the boards with a two-handed long-distance heave.

What triggered Wilson's ire that morning was Karpa's brutal giveaway that led to a goal for the Montreal Canadiens' Martin Rucinsky the night before. Instead of keeping it simple by chipping a pass off the boards and out of harm's way, Karpa made a terrible neutral zone pass that Rucinsky intercepted.

Karpa's bonehead play led to Rucinsky's third goal of the game, an easy breakaway that sealed Montreal's 6-5 victory.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the slag heap for Karpa.

Since that day, he has become one of the Ducks' steadiest, most reliable defensemen. Karpa's plus-minus rating was minus-five after the Montreal game. Now, it's a plus-four. He has been a minus in only four games since Nov. 6.

"I think me yelling at him that day has helped him and helped the team," Wilson said.

Two months later, Karpa isn't so sure Wilson's outburst alone caused his turnaround. But Karpa is certain he has played better hockey since then.

"I guess that's the coach's job," Karpa said. "He figured he had to do it. Whatever. It can be motivating. Or it can be negative."

It did get Karpa thinking about his game, however, and he decided he was pushing too hard. Trying to be too flashy and too impatient to make the big play wasn't helping the Ducks win.

After all, he's not Bobby Orr. He probably will never be an NHL all-star. But that's OK with the Ducks.

They call on wingers Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne to deliver pretty end-to-end rushes. They need a bit of nastiness from Karpa. They need hard checks along the boards and in front of the net. They need a well-timed fight to swing a game's momentum their way.

And they need safe clearing passes.

"Karpa's got to play within himself," Wilson said. "He can't say to himself, 'I've got to do certain things to impress people.' "

A simple, physical game is more to Karpa's liking anyway. It's what enabled him to reach the NHL in the first place. Abandoning that style was akin to Kariya or Selanne dropping their gloves at the slightest provocation.

There is a reason Karpa chucked his usual method of operation, however. He missed most of training camp while locked in a contract squabble with management. By the time he signed, he had missed more than a month of skating.

Karpa was out of sorts as the season began. But the Ducks were worse. Kariya missed the season's first 11 games with an abdominal injury and the Ducks won only once.

No one--except perhaps Selanne--played well for the first month of the season and frustrations reached a boiling point the day after the Montreal loss.

"I finally decided I was trying to do too much instead of playing my simple game," Karpa said. "I think game shape was a big thing. I just jumped right into the season. It's tough not skating for a month. I'm not going to deny it."

There have been a few potholes along the way, and at least one other outburst in practice. But for the most part, Karpa has been a model defenseman for the Ducks.

"He's a good guy, a good team guy," said fellow instigator Warren Rychel. "You don't win without guys like that. He's not fun to play against every night, I'll tell you that. Obviously, he didn't have much of a training camp. [But] we need him to play well back there [on defense]."

Karpa and Rychel have been pals since the season began, frequent dinner companions off the ice and consistent troublemakers on it.

But during a practice last month, they squared off against each other. At first, it looked like a typical practice fight, more posturing than punching. But when coaches and teammates tried to break it up, Karpa and Rychel kept trading blows.

Neither wanted to back down, to show a hint of weakness.

"Just the heat of the moment," Karpa said.

"Not that uncommon," Rychel said.

"I didn't think it was a big deal," Karpa said.

"We pretty much have the same personality and we just clashed," Rychel said.

Karpa and Rychel say they've grown closer since the fight.

"We laugh about it now," Karpa said.

Karpa's relationship with Wilson also has mended over time. Wilson's words might have stung Karpa worse than Rychel's punches, but it's over and forgotten.

Pressed about his actions that day back in November, Wilson seemed a bit sheepish, almost embarrassed at the steps he believed he had to take.

"I don't like to single people out like that in front of their peers," Wilson said. "Some guys can't handle that kind of pressure. You also can't do it too often or you'll ruin the effect.

"Sometimes that's what it takes to wake people up."

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