Ducks Having Trouble Finding a Happy Return

Friday night was supposed to be the real home opener for the Mighty Ducks, not the game last weekend, when they wore white jerseys 5,400 miles from here.

Instead the whole day seemed surreal, from Pierre Page's discussion of dining on pig parts in the morning to the hundreds of picketers marching around the Pond as fans entered to a pregame video homage to last season that somehow managed to omit the team's best player.

Athletes like routine and regiment, but it's clear already that there will be no rhyme or reason to this season for the Ducks. They did their part to spread the fair name of hockey by playing two games against the Vancouver Canucks in Japan last week, doing so at the expense of any degree of normalcy. They wrenched their biological clocks and ate meals like the one Page described: "The first course was pig's lungs, then it was cow's tongue and tail soup."

He didn't bother to order dessert.

They played on a makeshift rink built over a pool, leading to such new statistics as this observation in the pregame notes: "Anaheim is now 1-1-0 all-time in arenas with diving boards."

So you'll have to forgive the Ducks if the whole experience seemed like some sort of dream.

"It was different," backup goalie Mikhail Shtalenkov said. "Something weird. I can't even describe it."

Shtalenkov sounded like an astronaut returning to Earth, saying he was just happy to be back on "good North American ice."

Before Friday, they hadn't played a game on North American ice in almost two weeks.

"Right now I kind of forget about those two games in Japan," Shtalenkov said. "It seems as though we start the season tonight."

So the Ducks begin nine whole days after the puck first dropped for the rest of the league. And they begin with their No. 1 player, Paul Kariya, unsigned. A team so dependent on its top line began Friday with another key component, starting center Steve Rucchin, out with a groin injury. In other words, the Ducks were missing two-thirds of the line that produced 46% of the team's goals last season.

Kariya was noticeably absent from the video highlights, as if the Ducks thought that some skillful editing would make fans forget about him. No chance. Fans used electrical tape to rework game jerseys to read "Sign Kariya." They yelled "Sign Paul" during player introductions and the national anthem.

To see Kariya's worth spelled out, you only needed to be at the team's annual "face-off" luncheon Thursday. At a benefit silent auction of Duck paraphernalia, an autographed Teemu Selanne jersey required a minimum bid of $65, with a value listed at $300. There also was an autographed Kariya jersey, which must have been sitting around in a vault somewhere. It required a minimum bid of $100. Its listed value: "priceless."

If you want to measure how he makes his teammates better, even the great Selanne, look at the oft-noted 1-8-2 start the Ducks had without an injured Kariya last season.

Page said, "It's an easy adjustment when he comes back," although Kariya can't magically wave a wand and make things better. Still, his return sounds a whole lot better than the alternative.

"Right now, we just have to make sure that everybody comes up a notch, feels good about themselves and stretches themselves a little bit," Page said.

That extra effort should include reconnecting with the community, although that's more of a management problem right now.

Whatever love blossomed between the fans and this team over the last four years has cooled considerably. You could tell by the empty seats for the home opener (despite the announced sellout) and the boos for Page, the replacement for popular coach Ron Wilson. During the game the fans booed a Ducks team that produced only 10 shots on goal in the first two periods.

There literally were bitter feelings all around the Pond, thanks to the picketing Anaheim firefighters outside. They were protesting the lack of a new contract since the last one expired in July of 1996 and what they said were minimal pay raise offers from the city.

Richard Chavez, president of the firefighters' association, said there haven't been any negotiations since the summer. Hmmm, sounds familiar.

He said he had been too busy to follow the Kariya stalemate, but when told Kariya had not responded to an offer worth a reported $7 million a year, Chavez said, "I can't feel sorry for him."

While there might be plenty of anger to go around in the Kariya situation, there's no room for pity. The Ducks could have locked him up earlier, and Kariya can end this at any time by walking into General Manager Jack Ferreira's office and signing a contract.

Let the record show that the "real season" got off to a stumbling start when Tomas Sandstrom, who was supposed to bring Stanley Cup savvy to the team, picked up a penalty seven seconds into the game. Maybe it wasn't such a bad move. Until this Kariya deal gets done, the Ducks had better get used to the idea of playing short-handed.

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