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Mighty Bond

Times Staff Writer

This was a familiar Mighty Duck sibling situation. Paulie and Stevie were locked in another don’t-make-me-turn-this-car-around moment.

Steve Rucchin went into the corner after the puck and Paul Kariya, looking very much like a little brother, followed. As they scrapped through the practice drill, Rucchin accidentally dropped Kariya with an elbow.

“I guess that shows why Paul doesn’t come into the corners and play some defense during games,” Rucchin said later.

Kariya, informed of this, responded: “I want the videotape of that to go to the league. There has to be a suspension.”

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Such talk came later.

After clearing his head from the rogue elbow, the 5-foot-10, 182-pound Kariya went back into the drills and this time he tried to wrestle the big lug to the ice. He finally succeeded in hauling down the 6-3, 212-pound Rucchin and, then, as an exclamation point, Kariya tacked on a playful rabbit punch to the head as the two began to untangle.

“That’s a big issue there,” Kariya said, smiling. “You see that guy hit me with the elbow?”

Rucchin, informed of this, responded: “Paul shouldn’t lead with his face.”

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After nine seasons, you’d think these two could learn to get along. They sit next to each other in the dressing room. They have often been linemates throughout their careers. They have been through the gantlet with the Ducks.

And, after nine seasons, they are having the time of their lives.

There are those in the Duck dressing room who have waited longer to win a Stanley Cup; Steve Thomas has been kicking around the NHL 19 seasons and is getting his first kick at the Cup. But Kariya and Rucchin have dealt with personal crises and family tragedy, not to mention the outrageous slings and arrows that came with being a Mighty Duck for nine seasons.

Both arrived in 1994, the franchise’s second season. Both are, finally, playing for the Stanley Cup.

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The subject was Kariya. The response was perfect deadpan shtick.

Rucchin, sitting at his locker stall, with Kariya’s spot on his right and the wall to the training room on the left, went into his act.

“I have a wall on one side ... and a wall on the other side,” he said.

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“Sometimes I want to cut a hole here,” Rucchin continued, pointing at the training room. “Then I could have someone to talk with.”

Never once did Rucchin smile. Never once did anyone believe him.

Nine seasons.

Kariya was the whiz kid from Vancouver on the Pacific Coast, who was charted and scouted, not to mention tape-measured, from the moment he first laced up a pair of skates, through junior hockey and then shipped to the NHL for immediate stardom.

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Rucchin, the big unknown from Thunder Bay, located at the northern end of Lake Superior, whom the Ducks discovered skating around the University of Western Ontario while working toward a medical degree.

“There are not many differences between us,” Rucchin said. “Maybe I got to play on a few more outdoor rinks as a kid.”

Both have labored in Anaheim. Kariya under the microscope, especially by the Canadian media that seemed to pity him serving time in what they perceived as the NHL’s penal colony. Rucchin went about his business anonymously -- until the last two months -- perfectly happy to play Kariya’s Tonto.

Both have had career-threatening injuries. Kariya spent a blurry six months after suffering a concussion in 1997-98. Rucchin wore out a path to the surgeon because of freak injuries -- broken cheek bone, broken nose, broken ankle -- that broke Duck dreams the last two seasons.

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Both have dealt with loss in the last year. Kariya’s father, T.K. Kariya, died from a heart attack in December. Last June, Rucchin’s brother, Larry Rucchin, died after a two-year struggle with cancer.

And Kariya and Rucchin are still in Anaheim.

“I feel like a traitor, but I am sort of rooting for [the Ducks] because of some of the people involved,” said San Jose Coach Ron Wilson, who was the Mighty Duck coach for four seasons. “Especially Paul and Steve. It’s been a tough few years for the two of them, with Steve’s brother dying of cancer and Paul’s dad dying. Those are special stories.

“Those two guys have been loyal to an organization that didn’t always do the right thing for them. And that has become rare in sports. You don’t see much loyalty anymore.”

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Loyal to the team, sure, but to each other as well.

“Nine years knowing each other is a long time, Rooch probably thinks it’s been too long,” Kariya said. “We have always had a great relationship, on and off ice.”

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Nine seasons.

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For most of them, Rucchin had a ringside seat for the constant Kariya dissection.

Kariya was the Ducks’ centerpiece, their first first-round pick, fifth overall in 1993. Some thought he was too small to play in the NHL. Some thought he was the next Wayne Gretzky.

“He was 19 years old when he got here and he was going to mature,” Rucchin said. “It was tough for him. He came in and had to prove a lot personally. There was so much talk about his size. I wasn’t in his situation. I can only imagine how tough it is now to go prove yourself on a personal level. He obviously has taken care of that and it is on to more important things.”

Kariya has never deviated from his stump speech, that when he envisioned winning the Stanley Cup, it was in Anaheim. That would produce rolled eyes, giggles and even disbelief.

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Asked last season about Kariya’s plight, Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux was blunt.

“It’s tough to see a guy that talented not having a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup,” Lemieux said. “I’m sure it’s tough for him. The kind of team he has, I’m sure it’s difficult to accept. Sooner or later I think he’s going be a free agent and be able to pick his poison.”

Kariya has earned the right to have the last laugh, but any I-told-you-so offerings would run counter to his personality.

“To be honest, I couldn’t care less whether people believed me or not,” Kariya said. “That’s what I believed. I don’t make comments like that for other people. It is what I feel and what I want to accomplish. How anybody else reacts to it, well, everyone is entitled to an opinion.”

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The drumbeat about the 28-year-old Kariya has changed. Questions like “Is your career wasted in Anaheim?” have been replaced by “Has he lost some ability?” That leads to the question of whether he is worth $10 million per season.

Kariya had a career-low 25 goals this season. Some have speculated that he has never been the same player since being clobbered by Chicago’s Gary Suter that limited Kariya to 22 games in the 1997-98 season.

Yet, his 56 assists this season was his highest total since 1998-99. Truth is, Kariya is a better all-around player, stronger in the defensive end, with better players around him.

“Now it’s not so much what he can do for himself, but what he can do for the team,” Rucchin said. “The bottom line is the team winning.”

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Nine seasons.

Few had heard of Rucchin before the supplemental draft in 1994. Duck management, with the second pick, was making sure he was going to remain anonymous a little while longer.

The Ducks had the only two videotapes on Rucchin playing and they had refused to return them to the Western Ontario athletic department. Duck scouts, on the eve of the draft, were sequestered on their hotel floor. Even with the second pick, the Ducks were taking no chances.

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“We didn’t want someone to go out and have a beer and say Rucchin’s name,” Duck Assistant General Manager Dave McNab said.

The Ducks got Rucchin and it was a steal.

The Ducks learned how much they needed him when injuries limited Rucchin to 44 games over the last two seasons. General Manager Bryan Murray, knowing that the injuries came from fluke plays, signed the 31-year-old Rucchin to a four-year, $11.8-million contract last summer.

Again, it was a steal.

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“Can you imagine what Rucchin would be worth as an unrestricted free agent this summer?” Murray said.

The imaginary figure keeps getting higher. Rucchin smothered Detroit star center Sergei Fedorov in the first round and scored the game-winner in overtime to finish off the sweep. He bottled up Dallas’ Mike Modano in the second round.

“He is not anonymous anymore,” Kariya said. “People close to the team have known the type of player he has always been. Now people away from the team are starting to realize it.”

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The foghorn was still echoing and the crowd was still on its feet cheering throughout the Arrowhead Pond. The Ducks had just polished off Minnesota in Game 4 to win the Western Conference.

As the Duck players littered the ice in celebration, Rucchin and Kariya had a moment for a brotherly embrace.

Nine seasons.

All that remains is the Stanley Cup.

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“When you’re young, you’re excited,” Rucchin said, then sighed. “You’re obviously confident that you’re going to be successful and things are going to go well. I guess it has taken us a little bit of time.

“When you’re here for a while, you tend to bleed the colors of the team. We’re looking forward to this. Nine seasons isn’t really that long to get to the Stanley Cup final.”

So these two can put up with each another a little while longer.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Head To Head

*--* How the Stanley Cup finals opponents fared against each other in regular-season play: DUCKS HEAD TO HEAD DEVILS 0 Wins 2 2 Losses 0 0 Ties 0 3 Goals 6 0 Power-play goals 0 1 Short-handed goals 1 6 Goals against 3 52 Shots 64 61 Faceoffs won 67 20 Penalty minutes 22 0-6 Power plays 0-5 5-5 Penalty killing 6-6 0-9-1 Last 10 games 9-0-1 Nov. 12, 2002 Devils 3, Ducks 2, OT * Jamie Langenbrunner scored his second goal of the game on a rebound 3:04 into overtime as the Devils rallied from a two-goal, third-period deficit to win at home Jan. 24, 2003 Devils 3, Ducks 1 * Jay Pandolfo’s short-handed goal broke a 1-1 tie midway through the third period at the Pond as the Devils won their sixth consecutive game Roy Jurgens

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*--* Mighty Ducks vs. New Jersey STANLEY CUP FINALS Best-of-seven series (* if necessary) Game 1 at New Jersey Tuesday 5 p.m. (ESPN) Game 2 at New Jersey Thursday 5 p.m. (ESPN) Game 3 at Arrowhead Pond May 31 5 p.m. (Ch. 7) Game 4 at Arrowhead Pond June 2 5 p.m. (Ch. 7) Game 5 at New Jersey June 5* 5 p.m. (Ch. 7) Game 6 at Arrowhead Pond June 7* 5 p.m. (Ch. 7) Game 7 at New Jersey June 9* 5 p.m. (Ch. 7)

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