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Playing Head Games
By Thomas Louis Posted in NHL on April 7, 2017 0 Comments
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Recently on Pulp Hockey, former NHLer Ray Ferraro’s podcast, they had Teemu Selanne on as the guest. Selanne is also a retired NHL player who became a legend with the Anaheim (then Mighty—not so much now) Ducks. Among the hockey community, Selanne is iconic both for his on-ice performances and his reputation as one of the nicest guys in his sport. During the interview, he dropped a little nugget on everyone about his former teammate and one of his closest friends, Paul Kariya:

It was kind of a shame how his career ended. He’s very bitter about that. He always thought that the NHL was not looking after the players the way they should. So that’s why he doesn’t want to be involved with hockey at all, and he almost kind of like disappeared from the hockey world, which is very sad.

— Teemu Selanne

Selanne continued: “What he has done for hockey, and especially here in Anaheim and California, it’s unbelievable. He was an unbelievable hockey player, and I had a great time with him. It hurts me that he doesn’t want to be part of hockey, because I think he has a lot to offer and give. Hopefully one day he will come back, for some reason. I know the Ducks have really tried hard to get him back and into the program. But he’s very bitter about hockey, which is very sad.”

For the sake of my story, let’s run it back 22 years ago, back to the mid-90s. In 1995, as a soon-to-be six-year-old, my dad bought me my first-ever pack of hockey cards. As a child, he had collected boxes full of these cards that he would later gift me. For most Canadian boys, it is almost tradition to grow up collecting cards, trading them with friends and just generally spending hours looking at every single one of them. Safe to say that getting my first pack was kind of a big deal for me.

In that pack, there was one card that was different from the rest. It was shinier, and really stood out to my young eyes. It was instantly my favorite card of the 10 that I owned, and the player on it was none other than Paul Kariya. Nobody knew it yet, but in 1995-96 Kariya was about to explode as one of the most skilled NHL players of his generation, and become the face of a young and often ridiculed Mighty Ducks franchise.

That’s not to say that Kariya becoming a talented hockey player was a surprise to anyone. He dominated his high school league and put together what may still be the single most impressive season in NCAA history by putting up 25 goals and 75 assists in 39 games to total 100 points for his University of Maine Black Bears. His team finished the season with a Hockey East championship as well as the NCAA trophy by winning the national tournament. Kariya became the first freshman ever to earn the Hobey Baker as the NCAA’s best player.

The only question mark for Kariya was his ability to perform at the NHL level given his stature. He was listed at 5”10 but likely even shorter and weighed only 180 pounds. In what is now called the “dead puck” era of the NHL, due to its emphasis on physical play and defense, could a player whose game was all finesse survive?

As it turns out, players of Kariya’s talent find ways to thrive in any situation. With Selanne being brought over by trade in 1995-96, the two would become the NHL’s most potent one-two punch. Selanne was one of the few legitimately elite scorers in the league and Kariya was possibly the NHL’s most creative player with the puck. They had perfect chemistry together almost from the first time they stepped onto the ice and no team could answer that kind of firepower.

Unfortunately for the dynamic duo, the rest of the Mighty Ducks were not quite as talented as they were. In 1996-97, Kariya shook off injuries, including his first concussion, and along with Selanne, they were able to carry the team into the playoffs and take out Phoenix in the first round. In the conference semi-finals,  they found themselves outmatched by the Red Wings. Still, the team’s first playoff appearance also gave them their first playoff series win. Kariya and Selanne were both still young players bound to get better and the rest of the roster was starting to catch up, the Mighty Ducks had a lot to look forward to the future.

In addition, the 1997-98 season would be the first year that NHLers would be allowed to go to the Olympics. The 1998 Olympics would be held in Nagano, Japan, and Kariya was a mortal lock to make the Canadian team. It would be a special moment for him as his roots took him back to Japan, as he was the first-generation son to a Japanese father. Kariya had family back in Japan and it would be a great honor for him to play in front of them.

Or it would have been, had Gary Suter not been one the league’s dirtiest players. During a regular season game between the Ducks and Blackhawks on February 1, 1998, less than a week before the Olympics were to begin, Kariya’s career was forever changed.  After having scored a goal against the Blackhawks, Kariya was coming to a halt near the net when he was suddenly cross checked full force on the chin by the ‘Hawks’ Suter. Watch the hit for yourself to see how dangerous and unnecessary it was.

Rumors swirled around Suter’s intentions. There were accusations that, as an American, Suter took it upon himself to thin out his country’s competition for a gold medal by taking out Canada’s most skilled forward. Suter had a reputation for doing things like this, having injured Wayne Gretzky during the Canada Cup in 1991. In what would likely cause a riot these days, Suter recouped only a four-game suspension for his actions.

From there, Kariya’s health would always be in question. He bounced back in 1998-99 with a very strong season, reaching 101 points and playing all 82 games. Unfortunately, the Red Wings were once again his team’s demise in the playoffs, with the Ducks getting swept in the first round. The following seasons were mostly filled with Kariya and Selanne being exceptional with the team lagging behind them. In 2000-01, Selanne was sent to San Jose, and it took Kariya a full season to get adjusted without his partner-in-crime. For the first time since his rookie season, he posted less than a point per game in 2001-02.

Come 2002-03, the Mighty Ducks were finally beginning to look like a playoff team. Jean-Sebastien Giguere had established himself as a bonafide starter. Petr Sykora, Adam Oates and Steve Rucchin raised their play to help Kariya on the offensive end and as a committee, the team’s defense did a great job of covering Giguere. The team caught fire at exactly the right time and made a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup finals as a 7th seed.

In those same finals, Kariya was once again impacted by a dirty play from a defenseman looking to put him out of the game. To set the scene, it’s game six between the New Jersey Devils and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The Devils are up 3-2 in the series and a win clinches a Stanley Cup. It’s midway through the second period and the Ducks are leading the game 3-1. Kariya picks off a pass in the neutral zone and dumps it into the Devils’ side and… enter Scott Stevens.

In no era is that hit ever legal. Stevens targets—and proceeds to make contact with—Kariya’s head. It’s a despicable hit from a player who always erred on the side of dirty moves. Incredibly, Kariya returned to the game later on in the period, which would also never be allowed in this day and age. If you finish the video, you can see that he would even score a goal (to the immortal call of “OFF THE FLOOR AND ON THE BOARD!”) and add two assists to help his team stave off elimination. That is as close as Paul Kariya would get to a cup; despite his best efforts, the team would be shut out in Game 7 and lose a heartbreaker of a series.

What followed was a tough watch for any fan of Kariya or the Ducks. With his contract expired, he chose to move on from the team and meet up with his buddy Selanne in Colorado. It was an obvious attempt to chase a cup, because both took very friendly deals to play for the Avalanche. In Anaheim, fans were hurt because the team was coming off a deep playoff run with promises of being even better moving forward. Kariya’s decision to move on caused a rift with the franchise that would never completely heal.

Leaving Anaheim marked the unofficial end to Kariya’s NHL career. He would go on to have good seasons in Nashville and a last hurrah with the St Louis Blues, but never again would he escape the first round of the NHL playoffs. On the ice, he was decidedly less flashy and quick with the puck following the Stevens hit.

After a 15-year career and too many concussions to count, Kariya hung it up after the 2009-10 season. He put up 989 points in 989 games. The majority of those points were in the league’s worst era for scoring, and there’s no way of knowing how many more he would have had if Kariya hadn’t been constantly headhunted. To say that he is now bitter with the sport that made him famous is understandable. Back in his playing days, guys would actively try to injure him because he was smaller than everyone else and even more talented. Jealousy played a part in that; general disregard for other human beings did too. Paul Kariya should have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer, no questions asked, and now there is doubt whether he will ever get in at all. Paul Kariya carried a franchise in its infancy and for it, he has only has lasting effects from multiple head injuries. Paul Kariya gave his body to hockey, and the league simply shoved him aside when he (understandably) could no longer perform at 100%. You’re damn right that Paul Kariya is bitter, and I am too.

Always a small guy myself, Paul Kariya would always be my favorite player. Despite choosing him through admittedly childish ways, I followed his career from beginning to end. Never did I stray from being his fan, because even above the abilities he displayed on the ice, Kariya was even more impressive for his toughness and determination to play through countless attempts on his body. His perseverance was an inspiration to me, and helped me become a better basketball player, despite only being 5’7″. If Kariya could survive dirty hits from players 60 pounds heavier than him, I could take it to the hoop on guys taller than me.

To hear that Paul Kariya has a sour feeling on his entire NHL career saddens me. I wish we could go back in time to February 1, 1998, and warn him about Gary Suter. I firmly believe that hit forever robbed us of one of the most illustrious careers the NHL had ever seen. On a personal level, it doesn’t matter. Above anyone else, Kariya will be number one for me. His 9 jersey was the first sports shirt I ever received, and now it hangs on a wall in my childhood bedroom. Hopefully Kariya is able to one day make peace with his career, but I would understand if he’s unable to do so. Either way, thanks for the inspiration, Paul.

Anaheim Ducks Paul Kariya Teemu Selanne

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