Profile: Paul Kariya

One of the most accomplished and prolific scorers of his generation, Kariya was immortalized among the legends of the hockey world when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2017.

“I would never use ‘dream come true’ because it’s so far out of the realm of dream. As a kid growing up, you think about maybe one day playing in the NHL or one day representing your country, but a Hall of Fame was beyond that. It’s a surreal experience.”

Paul Kariya, 2017 interview with Sportsnet

A third-generation Japanese-Canadian, Kariya was born in 1974 in Vancouver. His father Tetsuhiko was born in an interment camp in Greenwood in the British Columbia interior during the Second World War. Paul Kariya started playing Junior A hockey with the Penticton Panthers of the BCJHL in 1990. He spent two years demolishing Junior A, scoring 244 points in just 95 games and being named league MVP both years.

Foregoing major junior for the college route, Kariya starred for two years at the University of Maine. He was the first freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award as the most valuable collegiate player after scoring 100 points in just 39 games. Kariya also led Maine to not only a conference title but also a national title.

He made his debut for the senior Canadian National Team at the 1993 World Championships and a year later at the 1994 World Championships, led Team Canada to a gold medal. Kariya was named the best forward of the 1994 World Championships after scoring 5 goals and 12 points in 8 games. At the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics in Norway, Kariya led Canada to a silver medal as the team’s leading scorer with 7 points.

Kariya was the first-ever player drafted by the expansion Anaheim Mighty Ducks when he was selected fourth overall in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. He made his NHL debut in 1994 as a winger and a year later during the 1995-96 season, Kariya broke out with 50 goals and 108 points, marking the start of a legendary duo with Teemu Selanne.

Kariya won the first of two consecutive Lady Byng awards as the NHL’s most sportsmanlike player of the year in 1996. He would go on to spend 9 seasons in Anaheim, serving as captain for 7 years and was unquestionably the team’s first franchise player.

In 1997, he propelled the Ducks to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and would score the overtime winner to stave off elimination in the first round against the Coyotes. Although eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Red Wings in the second round, Anaheim’s surprising performance set the stage for one of the most legendary moments in Ducks history during a run to the Stanley Cup Final against New Jersey in 2003.

Kariya’s most famous goal was one he would never remember scoring after a late and malicious hit by New Jersey Devil Scott Stevens in Game 6 that rendered Kariya motionless for 48 seconds. He finished his career in Anaheim as the franchise leader in almost all categories, although his departure was acrimonious. Kariya’s number 9 was retired by the Ducks last October in a stirring ceremony honouring his legacy to the franchise.

Intending to injure Canada’s star winger for the 1998 Nagano Olympics, American Gary Suter’s disgusting crosscheck on Kariya well after the whistle had been blown resulted in Kariya’s fourth reported concussion and prevented him from representing Canada at the 1998 Olympics. Kariya later won a gold medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, defeating the contemptible Suter and the Americans in a fitting retribution.

In 2003, Kariya signed with the powerhouse Colorado Avalanche as a restricted free agent, taking the largest salary decrease in NHL history to help the Avalanche make a run to the cup. Despite a reunion with Selanne, Kariya struggled with injuries and the duo was unable to propel the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup.

Following the 2004-05 lockout, Kariya signed with the Nashville Predators as an unrestricted free agent to a two-year, $9 Million contract and led the team with franchise records of 31 goals and 85 points. Again facing recurrent injuries, Kariya was unable to have the effect he wanted on the team’s playoff fortunes, with first round exits in 2006 and 2007.

Due to the uncertain ownership situation in Nashville, Kariya joined the St. Louis Blues in 2007, signing a three-year, $18 Million contract. His effectiveness hampered by repeated injuries and increasing age, Kariya played his final NHL game on April 11th, 2010 against the Predators and finished his career with totals of 402 goals and 989 points in exactly 989 games.

Throughout his career, Kariya was a frequent target for late, blindside hits that have no place in the game. He suffered from 6 reported concussions, and the cumulative post-concussion syndrome had become so severe that by 2010 doctors refused to clear him to resume playing hockey. He announced his retirement on June 29th, 2011.

“I woke up in a hospital bed. I didn’t know who I was or where I was. When I saw what happened, I was… furious wouldn’t describe the words. And not for myself, but for the fact that these hits were still happening in the game.”

Paul Kariya after his sixth and final concussion in December 2009

Kariya played an instrumental role as an advocate to clean up deplorable rules in the NHL which permitted reprehensible blindside hits and hits to the head. As early as 1998, Kariya said that “If the league wants to stop that kind of conduct, it will have to punish players…Ten-game suspensions…and more, have to be brought back to help wake up players, to teach them about having respect for one another.”

“The thing that I worry about is that you’ll get a guy who is playing with a concussion, and he gets hit, and he dies at centre ice…Can you imagine what would happen to the league if a guy dies at centre ice?”

Paul Kariya, 2011 interview with The Globe and Mail

During the 2006-07 season when the NHL finally started its long-overdue process to remove these egregious hits, Kariya commented that “having been through so much with that…It’s something that should’ve been in place years and years ago.”

“I think today we’re in a way better spot when I retired. Things are moving in the right direction, but those targeted head shots are still in the game. And for me, there’s no reason to have that in the game.”

Paul Kariya, 2011 interview with TSN

After retirement, Kariya has focused on recovering from the countless injuries he picked up during his playing career. A resident of southern California, Kariya traded his hockey stick in for a surfboard and he spends much of his time surfing. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2017.