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A Welcome Sight After missing the final 28 games last season because of a concussion, Paul Kariya is back, which is good news for Anaheim and even better news for the NHL

Paul Kariya flashed over the blue line, faked a wrist shot from
the left face-off circle and pulled the puck wide as
Philadelphia Flyers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck bit like a cop on
a doughnut. Now all Kariya had to do to dot the i after his
signature move was lift the puck into the gaping net. Instead he
bungled the shot, dribbling the puck into Vanbiesbrouck's
outstretched stick. Three hours later in the churchlike silence
of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' locker room, Kariya ticked off
everything in the game he would like to take back: that flip
shot in the first minute, a money-in-the-bank two-on-one with
linemate Teemu Selanne and a shot from the slot that he
practically fanned on. Said Kariya, who scored Anaheim's only
goal in the 4-1 loss in Philadelphia on Sunday, "The timing's
just not there."

For Kariya, who was playing in just his second game since
suffering a concussion on Feb. 1, this is true. For the NHL,
Kariya's fresh start is perfect timing.

This is our Kariya Theory: Almost everything that went wrong
with the NHL in 1997-98 can be linked to his absences. Follow
the breadcrumbs. Kariya's two-month holdout at the start of the
season had a paralyzing effect not only on Disney's Ducks but
also on the entire league. At 23 Kariya was a crowd-pleasing
star who over the previous two seasons had had the highest
points-per-game average, 1.43, in the NHL. Kariya eventually
signed a two-year, $14 million contract but then played only 22
games before Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Gary Suter
cross-checked him in the jaw after Kariya had scored a goal.
With scoring already plummeting leaguewide, Suter in one act of
rank idiocy--he wound up with a four-game suspension--shelved
the NHL's most potent offensive player for the rest of the season.

More significant, Kariya's absence derailed the league's most
ambitious and admirable project--participation in the Olympic
Games. As a third-generation Canadian with ancestral ties to
Japan and as one of the world's most exciting players, Kariya
would have been the star attraction at Nagano. He was the one
young Canadian forward with the purportedly European attributes
of speed and puck skills, and he would have been dancing on the
big Olympic ice before adoring crowds. Kariya also would have
been one of Canada's five players in the semifinal shoot-out
against Czech goalie Dominik Hasek, who stoned the Canadians and
denied them a shot at the gold medal. After Canada returned home
empty-handed, a dishwater-gray mood tailed the NHL clear through
the Stanley Cup.

Taking Kariya out of the 1997-98 season was akin to taking George
Bailey out of It's a Wonderful Life. "Go ahead," Kariya says with
a laugh when the theory is presented. "Blame me."

He is different now, eight months after getting that facial. He
smiles easily. He is more engaging. He is as serious as ever
about his job--over the summer Kariya hired a cook to prepare
nutritious meals, dropping $2,100 on top-of-the-line
cookware--but he emits a sense of playfulness that is charming.
"I feel a little more relaxed now," Kariya said last Friday, the
day before the Ducks lost their opener to the Washington
Capitals 1-0. "I don't get agitated at the little things that
used to bother me. If the bus is waiting and I can't get my
[postpractice] workout in, I find a way around it. I'm not so
concerned about being in a regimen. Why? I don't know. I guess
it's that cliche--if you don't have your health, you have

If there was one degree of separation between Kariya and NHL
success last season, there were several degrees of separation
between Kariya and his senses after the concussion. At first
Kariya was optimistic that he would sweep out the cobwebs and
jet to Nagano one week later. He hadn't lost consciousness on
the hit, unlike the three other times he had suffered
concussions, and in previous instances Kariya's head always had
cleared by the next morning. But this time symptoms of
postconcussion syndrome lingered. He would retrieve messages
from his answering machine and moments later not have a clue who
had called. His head throbbed, and the fog was not lifting.

The worst times were at night. "There weren't a lot of positive
images of me holding up the Stanley Cup, I'll tell you that,"
Kariya says of his thoughts. He was young, wealthy and clever,
yet all he could think of as he lay in bed was a dim future. "I
was well-rounded, I'd been to college. It wasn't that I couldn't
do anything else," he says. "I wanted to stay in sports, but if I
couldn't think, how was I going to play?"

Late last season Kariya took a call from New York Rangers center
Pat LaFontaine, who had himself struggled with postconcussion
syndrome. (He would be forced to retire after '97-98 as a
result.) Kariya also heard from Flyers captain Eric Lindros, who
sustained a serious concussion last year and whose brother
Brett's career was prematurely ended by concussions. At Eric's
suggestion, Kariya tried acupuncture in late April. The logy
feeling quickly began to vanish. For a player whose approach to
hockey is almost scientific, Kariya showed little curiosity
about the physiology of concussions. He didn't want to know
about the shearing of the axons that had short-circuited his
brain and his season. After he resumed training on May 10, he
only wanted to know what it would take to get ready to play again.

Kariya, who was cleared to play in August, returned with an
additional one-quarter inch of foam padding in his helmet and a
tighter chin strap to prevent the headgear from flying off. He
also is using a mouth guard, a device that absorbs and diffuses
the force from blows to the jaw. Kariya has even more
protection: the promise by an anxious league to levy stiff
suspensions on headhunters; his own elbows and stick, both of
which he says he now won't hesitate to use; and a 6'6",
230-pound bodyguard named Stu Grimson, a.k.a. the Grim Reaper.
Grimson, in his second tour of duty with Anaheim, is an enforcer
who won't play on a line with the 5'11", 180-pound left wing and
can't prevent every hit on the Ducks' star but who can make
Kariya's life marginally easier. After Capitals tough-guy Craig
Berube gave Kariya a mild bump in the second period last
Saturday, Grimson sought out Berube, dropped his gloves on the
ensuing face-off and duked it out. "[The hit] was hard enough to
elicit a response," Grimson says. "Why not send a message early?
Not so much for the league as for the kid, that I'm going to do
my best to make sure he's allowed to play his game."

Berube's bump was so trifling that Kariya didn't even recall it
after the game. Not to worry. His short-term memory is fine,
thank you.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY LOU CAPOZZOLA Gotcha! Despite missing several scoring opportunities his first weekend back, Kariya buried this one against Vanbiesbrouck. [Paul Kariya scoring goal against John Vanbiesbrouck]