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Selanne Plows Ahead as Ducks’ Icebreaker

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They stood side by side on the ice a year ago in Boston, No. 8 and No. 9, teammates in the NHL All-Star game but not yet for the Mighty Ducks.

Teemu Selanne, a star with the Winnipeg Jets, was making his third appearance in the game, and during the introductions he kept a running commentary with the Ducks’ Paul Kariya, playing in his first All-Star game at 21.

“Every time a player was introduced, I’d elbow Paul and say, ‘What a player he is. Unbelievable,’ ” Selanne said. “Then the next player, he’d elbow me and say, ‘How about him? Unbelievable.’ Then they introduced Mario Lemieux, and we said, ‘Do you think he’d give us his autograph?’ ”

Eighteen days later, Selanne was traded by Winnipeg to Anaheim, and he and Kariya began a collaboration that has made them among the best in the game, even though their team is in fourth place in the Pacific Division, ninth in the Western Conference, at the All-Star break.

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“Whoever they play with, it’s a scary line,” Duck Coach Ron Wilson said. “It’s certainly not Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis. . . . Or Eric Lindros, John LeClair, Mikael Renberg--that’s a different type of line. They can do damage physically as well as scoring. But those three, they’re probably the best three lines in the league.”

Kariya and Selanne won’t be standing together during introductions at the All-Star game Saturday in San Jose because Selanne had to give up his No. 8 to Sandis Ozolinsh, who was voted a starter. And whether they actually will play together will be up to Western Conference Coach Ken Hitchcock of the Dallas Stars.

Still, the impression Selanne made on Kariya a year ago was so profound that his reports to General Manager Jack Ferreira actually helped cement Ferreira’s decision to trade for Selanne.

“His personality was so outgoing, so down to earth,” Kariya said. “He seemed like a kid in a man’s body, and he didn’t seem to be affected by everything that was going on around us. It was almost shocking, for a guy of his stature to be like that.”

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A year later, that respect has only grown.

“You don’t really know how good players are unless you play with them,” Kariya said. “I mean actually play on a line with him so you see the little things he can do. Even if you’re on the same team, watching at ice level, you don’t really appreciate him unless you’re out there seeing his passes.”

Selanne eased the focus on Kariya when he joined the Ducks, and his career is back on the upswing. He set an NHL rookie record with 76 goals in 1993, but injuries and the NHL lockout helped limit his production until last season, when he scored 40 goals and 108 points. This season, he ranks fifth in the league in scoring with 56 points and is among the top 10 with 25 goals.

“My first year was unbelievable, of course,” said Selanne, in his fifth NHL season at 26. “Probably I will never have those numbers again. That doesn’t mean I can’t play better. You can play better without having bigger numbers.”

Kariya is the Ducks’ most valuable player--as their 1-10-2 record when he is injured attests--but Selanne has been their metronome, game after game.

Since he joined the Ducks, he has missed only one game, for the birth of his son, and has 92 points in 72 games. Only nine times this season has he been held without a point, and three of those games were in a four-day stretch in October when Kariya was injured.

Selanne has had two nine-game scoring streaks, separated by only one game--meaning he had at least an assist in 18 of 19 games. He also has points in 27 of the last 30 games.

“He’s playing really consistent hockey, no ups and downs. That’s a good sign,” said teammate Jari Kurri, who has struggled offensively. “When you can keep it level, night after night, that’s very important. I think his confidence level is really high. He’s playing with Paul and that helps a lot.

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“They’re in good shape, and they’re mentally fresh. I know February and the end of January can be tough. You’ve played 50 or 60 games, and you have to find a way to keep it going. I think they’ll find a way.”

For the Ducks, whose top goal-scorers on the three other lines have no more than eight goals, Selanne’s steadiness has been crucial.

“We don’t have a lot of depth in scoring,” Wilson said. “But he’s been like that throughout his career. Very consistent. Those players always get opportunities every game. It shows you how good he is, that if he gets two opportunities he makes good on one.

“As we get better, I could see him getting up to the 70-goal plateau eventually because of that. That’s how he did it that year he scored 76, he scored every game almost. Maybe he had four or five hat tricks, but just about every night he used to get two or three breakaways. We don’t have a Phil Housley-type defenseman who can definitely make that quick pass along the boards all the time to get him out on a breakaway, but he still manages to create opportunities for himself.”

Selanne should be a bigger star than he is in Southern California, with his talent, ebullient personality and distinctive looks.

He has a gregarious way about him, the sort who will stick a teasing comment into every conversation and prop up his teammates in subtle ways.

The Ducks play a conditioning game in which players take sides while a teammate tries a breakaway, then skate sprints if they bet wrong on whether he’ll score. Selanne often goes against the crowd. And many times, he ends up skating because of it.

“I try to be different from other guys,” he said. “Sometimes there’s some player everybody thinks can’t score, so I go to the other side. I do it for him. If he doesn’t score, I just skate. Who cares?”

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He has the same kind of generous spirit with fans.

“When I was little, sometimes I used to try to get an autograph,” he said. “It’s an easy job. Why not?”

Not that it was always that easy in Winnipeg, where he was the city’s biggest celebrity.

“It was too much sometimes,” Selanne said. “When I went out, I never could be, like, normal. It was great to play for the people there and be really respected for playing well. But it is the same thing in [his native] Finland. I can’t go anywhere where people don’t recognize me.

“I really enjoy being in Anaheim because if you want to go out and take your wife to dinner, people aren’t stopping you. Most of the time they don’t even recognize you.”

Recognition probably won’t come until the Ducks become winners, and they’re still going to have to scramble to make the playoffs this season.

When Wilson talks about the future of Kariya and Selanne he can’t help but look at what the great combinations had in common.

Wayne Gretzky and Kurri. Lemieux, Jagr and Francis. Jacques Lemaire, Steve Shutt and Guy Lafleur with Montreal. Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies with the New York Islanders.

“They won Stanley Cups,” Wilson said. “That’s what makes it special.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

All-Star Weekend

TODAY’S EVENTS

* Noon-11 p.m.: Pinnacle/NHL FANtasy, San Jose Convention Center. Hockey-related exhibits.

* 5:45 p.m.: All-Star Friday, San Jose Arena (ESPN, 6; ESPN2, 9:30). Puck-control relay, fastest skater, hardest shot, rapid fire, accuracy shooting, power-play events.

SATURDAY’S EVENTS

* 9 a.m.-6 p.m.: Pinnacle/NHL FANtasy, San Jose Convention Center.

* 5 p.m.: 47th NHL All-Star Game, at San Jose Arena. Channel 11.

SUNDAY’S EVENTS

* 9 a.m.-6 p.m.: Pinnacle/NHL FANtasy.


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