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Paul Kariya took what amounted to the largest pay cut in National Hockey League history -- an $8.8-million reduction from the $10-million annual pay he received last season from the Anaheim Mighty Ducks -- and signed a one-year, $1.2-million contract with the Colorado Avalanche.

There is ample precedent in professional sport for the NHL's unrestricted free agents to sell themselves to the highest bidder, but Kariya turned the league on its heels yesterday by effectively going to the lowest bidder.

Kariya is, if nothing else, a highly principled individual, and his decision yesterday was a reflection of his unique personality, of a burning desire to win an NHL championship and of a desire to play again with his close friend Teemu Selanne.

It's an interesting development because, through good times and bad, Kariya always insisted his goal was to win a Stanley Cup with the Mighty Ducks, who drafted him in 1993. It was a message he reiterated in the spring during the Mighty Ducks' dramatic run to the Stanley Cup final, which they lost to the New Jersey Devils in the seventh game.

Then the Mighty Ducks took the unprecedented step of letting Kariya go as an unrestricted free agent on Monday, deciding not to issue him the $10-million qualifying offer needed to retain his playing rights. Presumably, Kariya interpreted the Ducks' action as a betrayal of sorts.

It took all of 72 hours to put 10 years of loyalty behind him and to move on, not for money, but for the intriguing opportunities that Colorado presented.

"I wasn't hurt by their decision, because they had the right to do that," Kariya said at a news conference in Denver, "but, yes, it was difficult.

"I really enjoyed my time in Anaheim . . . but at the same time, when I was made unrestricted, I spoke to Teemu. We talked about what was the best situation for us hockey-wise, taking out everything else, and both of us said 'Colorado' instantaneously.

"It's nothing against Anaheim. It's a hockey decision that we wanted to come here."

Kariya concluded that at this stage of his career, Colorado, which has won nine consecutive divisional titles but lost to the Minnesota Wild in the opening playoff round last season, is far better positioned for a run at the Stanley Cup than the Mighty Ducks. Miracles do happen, but rarely two years in a row.

By signing a one-year deal, with no bonuses or incentives, Kariya will again become an unrestricted free agent next summer as a 10-year veteran with a salary below the NHL average. In addition, he can sign a new deal with any club next summer under terms of the NHL's current collective labour agreement, thus controlling his own destiny again.

There was a sense that Kariya, 28, and Selanne, who turned 33 yesterday, wanted to play together again, but the suspicion was it would be in Anaheim, where Selanne maintains an off-season residence.

Instead, Selanne also signed with Colorado for $5.8-million, down from the $6.5-million he received last season and a steep drop from the $9.5-million he got two seasons ago from the Mighty Ducks.

Together, the two contracts will cost the Avalanche less than the $8-million they dropped from the payroll when goaltender Patrick Roy retired last month.

How did Colorado pull off the coup?

Partly, it was because of the relationship between player agent Don Baizley and Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix, who have been negotiating megabucks contracts for years. It is unlikely that so complex a deal could have been negotiated between another agent and general manager in these changing economic times.

With yesterday's signings, Colorado will start the coming season as the odds-on favourite to win the Stanley Cup, even though the Detroit Red Wings signed Derian Hatcher as a free agent yesterday, solidifying their deep defence corps.

The expectation is that Kariya and Selanne will flank Colorado captain Joe Sakic on a line, which will be ably abetted by a unit consisting of Peter Forsberg, Milan Hedjuk and Alex Tanguay, which was the NHL's No. 1 line last season. Colorado's defence remains first rate, with Rob Blake, Adam Foote and Derek Morris.

The big question now is: Who will replace Roy in goal?

At the moment, the Avalanche goaltending is in the hands of untried David Aebischer, a 25-year-old Swiss-born netminder who played behind Roy for the past three seasons.

After having excellent an 13-6 record and a 1.88 goals-against average two seasons ago, Aebischer's play fell off last season, as he managed only a 7-12 record and 2.43 goals-against average.

Colorado has high hopes for 23-year-old Philippe Sauve, who spent the past three seasons in Hershey as an apprentice for the No. 1 job, but it is anyone's guess whether he is ready to play on a contending team.

But Lacroix doesn't necessarily need to address the goaltending issue right away. He can buy time until the NHL trade deadline in March.

On many levels, Lacroix pulled off a masterful move yesterday. In previous years, he stripped his organization virtually bare of talent in the endless quest to win the Stanley Cup.

Sometimes his moves worked, such as his decision to bring in Blake to help the Avalanche get over the top in 2001. Sometimes they backfired, such as when he gave up three players and a draft choice in 1999 to get Theo Fleury, who was a bust.

Now, however, Lacroix has replenished Colorado's depth up front and, in the process, sent a signal to the rest of his peers. In a summer when so many clubs are meekly retreating in anticipation of the NHL's new post-2004 economic system, the Avalanche made a bold move to step to the front of the class, trying to win one more Stanley Cup before Armageddon arrives.

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