EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There must have been days when even Paul Kariya wondered why he was sticking with the floundering Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
Especially when best friend and linemate Teemu Selanne was jettisoned to San Jose in March 2001, leaving Kariya as the only marketable player on a team going nowhere.
But you would never know for sure.
Kariya never complained.
The January 2002 NHL all-star game seemed to mark the breaking point for Kariya. The soft-spoken winger was the focal point of many scrums that week, with reporters asking him why he wouldn't abandon ship.
There was a push, especially from Canadian media, to see the Vancouver superstar shipped to a better club.
But Kariya says he began to see signs of promise.
"At the end of last season, if you look at our team, we were extremely good defensively, our penalty-kill was in the top 10 in the league," says Kariya, who signed a one-year $10-million US deal last summer.
"What we lacked was a power play and offensive players. Going into the season (GM) Bryan Murray picked up Adam Oates, Petr Sykora, Fredrik Olausson right from the start, that makes a pretty good power play.
"I felt going into the season, as long as we continued on to play well defensively, we would start turning those one-goal losses into one-goal wins."
Did they ever, registering a 40-27-9-6 record and stunning Detroit and Dallas in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
And here is Kariya, after nine long years in Anaheim, in the Stanley Cup final.
"Well, we're a better team," Kariya says matter of factly.
"You know, this is the most talent that we have had on our club since Day 1," Kariya continued. "We have three lines that can score offensively. Everybody contributes defensively and, obviously, we have been getting some unbelievable goaltending from Jiggy (J.S. Giguere).
"We feel confident going into every game, if we play our system, we can win."
That system is a version of the neutral-zone trap that has seen Kariya sacrifice some offence in order to win. Considering the Ducks had only made the playoffs twice in his eight previous seasons, Kariya was willing to do anything to finally make it work.
So when rookie head coach Mike Babcock instituted his system, Kariya, captain of the team, embraced it and his teammates followed.
"He's like all good players. He wants to win," says Babcock. "In order to win you have to have everybody on the same page going the same direction. When you're the captain, you've got to be the guy who sets the tone."
Not to say Kariya isn't scoring anymore, he still led the team with 81 points this season, though that's a far cry from the 100-point plateau he's reached twice.
When the Ducks missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season last year, Kariya didn't ask for a trade like so many people wanted him too.
"Paul is one of the most committed players I've ever been around," says Ducks GM Bryan Murray. "His desire to be on a winning team is second to none. The guy stayed around here when he probably could have begged out a couple of times."
Instead, Kariya sat down with Murray and played an active role in helping to lure free agent Oates as well as discussing the merits of acquiring Sykora from New Jersey -- a deal that saw Anaheim ship winger Jeff Friesen and defenceman Oleg Tverdovsky to the Devils.
"Paul really had some foresight in what we should try to do," Murray said. "He had a level of excitement that is not normal for a star player. Usually, they say, 'Yeah, right. Show me.' And then they start looking around to see where else they can go to have a chance to win. Paul had a dream to be in the final."