The day the Mighty Ducks used their first-ever draft pick on a smallish playmaker from the University of Maine, Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner watched as a smiling, boyish Paul Kariya pulled the Duck sweater over his shirt and tie and jet-black hair. And as he watched, standing almost alone, Eisner actually said out loud to no one in particular, “Perfect. Perfect. Perfect.”
Eisner had seen no more than a glimpse of the skill, speed, creativity and intuition that have made Kariya the Ducks’ best player from the moment the 19-year-old rookie stepped on the ice with them in early September. What Eisner saw, with a corporate eye practiced in assessing the powerful appeal of idealized youth, was a boy who exuded genuineness, intelligence and modesty, mingled with the air of a talent yet to be fully seen.
Kariya is the All-American kid who isn’t American at all. He is Canadian, and his hair, along with the shape of his eyes and structure of his face, hints at his Japanese and Scottish heritage--his father, Tetsuhiko, was born in an internment camp in Canada during World War II, a difficult chapter of family history that Kariya says is rarely spoken about. All together, it is a combination that makes Kariya a powerfully appealing image of the increasingly multiethnic face of society.
He is also one hell of a hockey player--an edge-of-your seat hockey player who is already the second-most watchable one in Southern California.
“He just has that knack . . . You start to expect something when he’s on the ice,” Duck Coach Ron Wilson said. “It’s like a baseball game, in a way. When Frank Thomas comes to bat, you expect something, whether it’s a great strikeout by the pitcher or a home run. It’s like that when you play against Wayne Gretzky. You wait for his shift because when he’s on the ice, something could happen at any time.”
Anyone who saw Kariya play with the Ducks during the exhibition season knows what Wilson means. There are the metal-to-a-magnet passes, the uncanny eye for the open man, and the rousing breakaway chances that the crowd is already learning to sense even as they unfold.
So often, Kariya tries something so clever it challenges one’s ability to describe it. A backhand pass between his legs, a spin to find room to thread a pass. In an exhibition game against Boston in San Diego, he created a breakaway by dashing to the blue line and lifting Ray Bourque’s stick just enough to let a pass slide under, then chased down the puck for what proved to be no more than a missed breakaway opportunity, but a spectacular one.
“He doesn’t surprise me in anything he does, because he’s done it at every level,” Duck General Manager Jack Ferreira said. “I sure enjoy seeing it, though.”
The three teams that passed on Kariya before the Ducks took him fourth in 1993 should be second-guessing themselves already. Back then, he was a skillful young forward whose size left some scouts wondering if he could make it in the body-crunching world of the NHL. He had just won an NCAA Division I championship at Maine and become the first freshman to win the Hobey Baker award, given to the best U.S. college hockey player--though that has never been a guarantee of professional success. But in the year that followed, Kariya has grown a bit more solid at 5 feet 10 and truthfully, about 165 pounds--a size not really that rare in the NHL. More important, he proved on a silver-medal winning Canadian Olympic team and gold-medal World Championships team that his skill, cleverness and elusiveness more than make up for his stature.
“I saw Paul play in the Olympics and World Championships, and even then you knew this was not a fluke or a couple of good games,” said Duck center Stephan Lebeau, who is 10 pounds heavier but an inch or so shorter than Kariya. “I knew he was good, but he’s even better than I thought he was. And I knew he was good.
“There’s no doubt this guy is going to do things in this league. He’s going to be fun to watch. He surprises opponents all the time--even sometimes his own teammates. His passing ability is something to see.”
NHL players aren’t given to hyping rookie prospects, but they have seen enough of Kariya to know he is special.
“I just feel him, where he is,” said Anatoli Semenov, who centers the line with Kariya on the left wing and another rookie, Valeri Karpov, on the right. “Paul, you know, he’s unbelievable player, I think. He’s very talented.”
Center Bob Corkum says “there are not very many guys who have been in the league a long time who are as good as Paul is right now,” and Lebeau, asked who Kariya resembles in the NHL, can think of no more than two players.
“You have to say Gretzky right away, that’s for sure. They’re the same type of hockey player,” Lebeau said. “If he’s going to put up the same numbers as Gretzky, that’s another question, but who knows?”
And besides Gretzky? Lebeau pauses, thinks. “Maybe Doug Gilmour, a little bit.”
The comparisons to Gretzky are not really comparisons, not in the sense that anyone is predicting Kariya will become hockey’s all-time leading scorer or acknowledged as the greatest to play the game. They are more an attempt to describe how Kariya plays, a style that is in obvious homage to Gretzky--right down to the fact, Wilson needles, that Kariya can be a bit lazy getting back on defense.
Kariya gave every indication during the exhibition season that he will be a point-a-game type player, even as a rookie. Some experts even see him finishing in the top 15 in the league in scoring.
But Kariya’s career and Gretzky’s clearly are not on parallels. Kariya will turn 20 on Oct. 16. The year Gretzky turned 20, he won the second of his eight consecutive NHL scoring titles, notching 109 assists in a 164-point season.
“The area that will have to be monitored and kept under control is expectations relative to points,” said Shawn Walsh, who was Kariya’s coach at Maine. “It’s still an expansion team. I think once they move to the upper echelon of teams, he’ll be a terrific point-producer. He may not produce like that right away.”
“Gretzky is in a league by himself,” said Glen Sather, Gretzky’s longtime coach in Edmonton and general manager of the Canadian team Kariya played for at the World Championships this summer. “I don’t think anybody compares to Wayne. Wayne’s the most superior hockey player we’ll see in our lifetimes.
“Paul Kariya is a very gifted player. He sees the ice, the way all great players do. He has great instincts, good work habits, he’s dedicated and sincere.
“I don’t know if he’ll be a great player in this league. That takes time to prove. He’s a rookie. He’ll have good nights and bad nights. He’s not going to step into this league and dominate right away . . . I’m sure Paul Kariya is embarrassed if anybody tries to compare him to Wayne.”
As Kariya has said, “To be mentioned in the same breath as Wayne Gretzky is a tremendous honor, but to me Wayne Gretzky is untouchable. Incomparable. He should be left alone on a pedestal.”
Still, when Kariya sets up behind the net, he is using the advantages of that protected position in a way virtually created by Gretzky. When he makes a no-look pass or kicks the puck off his skates up to his stick, much the same. Even when he swirls behind the play, cheating into position for a breakout pass, it is like Gretzky. So much of what Kariya does, in fact, was directly inspired by the young Gretzky, who Kariya watched hour upon hour on videotapes as a boy.
“It began extremely early, and I think he identified with him because he was smaller in stature than most players,” said Sharon Kariya, Paul’s mother. “To this day, when he comes home from school or wherever he’s been, he puts on tapes of Wayne Gretzky. We’ve got all the Canada Cup games and Gretzky’s own personal tapes. He’s always watched them over and over. Possibly by the time he started playing junior hockey, he started watching other people too, to learn from them, but Gretzky continued to be his model.”
Kariya, a lonely voice growing up in North Vancouver, British Columbia, cheered for the Edmonton Oiler dynasty. The day Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles, his mother picked up 13-year-old Paul at school and tried to break it to him gently.
“He didn’t believe it, he absolutely could not believe it,” Sharon Kariya said. “I said, ‘Paul, I think Wayne Gretzky is going to be traded from Edmonton.’ He said, ‘No, he’s not.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think we’ll hear something about it on the news tonight.’ He was absolutely flabbergasted.”
The next day, the Kings replaced the Oilers as Kariya’s favorite team and he never reconsidered until the day he became a Duck. He waited a year before he put on the Duck uniform for real--mostly because he wanted to play for Canada in the Olympics.
“I think he remembered one time Wayne Gretzky saying he regretted not being able to participate in the Olympics,” Sharon Kariya said.
On the ice, Kariya is full of flash and boldness and risk. Off it, he says, with his typical half-suppressed smile, “I’m a very conservative person.”
He arrived at training camp addressing the 39-year-old Wilson as “Mr. Wilson,” until he was invited--begged, teased and implored--to stop.
When he decided to use a sliver of his three-year, $6.5-million contract to buy his first car, “something safe” was all he had in mind.
Sharon and T.K., as Paul’s father is called, have a family philosophy that one should do one’s best to contribute, and do it quietly. They try to be diligent that no matter what accolades their five children receive, they are treated as equals at home.
When Wilson and Ferreira had dinner at the Kariya home a few months after the draft, it was Paul who got up to clear the table at his mother’s prompting.
“Every single time I come home, the big thing is I have to make up my bed,” Kariya said, laughing. “I wake up every morning and my mom says, ‘Did you make up your bed?’ I come home, and I don’t get treated special, probably the opposite. It brings you down to earth.”
Wilson nods his approval. “That’s what makes Paul so different,” he said, pausing for effect. “He’s normal.”
That unassuming nature has been an asset every time Kariya has walked into a dressing room for the first time--with his junior hockey team in Penticton, B.C., at Maine, the Olympics, the World Championships and now with the Ducks. Every time, there have been skeptics, and every time, he has won them over.
“I think Paul has an ability to be soft-spoken and so respectful that he commands respect because people recognize he’s not brash and cocky,” said Tom Renney, the Canadian Olympic coach. “He’s a young man here to do business.”
The true moment of acceptance usually comes very early, and usually on the ice. (Few things are more endearing than putting the puck on a player’s stick when he’s wide open in front of the net.)
Jim Montgomery, a college teammate now with the Montreal Canadiens, still remembers the first time he discovered Kariya’s sixth sense.
“The first time we played together, I was open for a pass, and I’ve always been in the habit of shouting to let people know I’m there,” said Montgomery, one of Kariya’s closest friends. “Just as I started to yell, the pass came. We got back to the bench and he said, ‘I know you’re there. You don’t have to yell. It just lets the opposition know you’re there.’ ”
When Kariya arrived at Maine, Montgomery says, “the amazing thing was how smart he was and how mature he was.”
“He was being offered all kinds of money by junior teams, but he came to the University of Maine. He knew what he wanted out of life. If you don’t know him, people are going to think he’s a little reserved or standoffish. He’s not, he’s just always analyzing the situation.”
Randy Ladouceur, the 12-year veteran who is the Ducks’ captain, has noticed how Kariya blends in.
“I think he’s bending over backward to stay out of the limelight,” Ladouceur said. “The last thing he’s tried to do is flaunt things, like his money. It would be one thing if he showed up here on the first day in a big Mercedes-Benz, but he’s taken the shuttle from the Disneyland Hotel just like everybody else. He’s come in and tried to gradually acclimate, to see what’s going on. He really doesn’t say a lot. He’s taking everything day by day, kind of reading the situation.”
What Kariya does on the ice is sometimes so imaginative--and sometimes so unimaginable until he does it--that people wonder about the connection between this thoughtful, respectful young man and the impulsive, instinctual game he plays.
“He pushes the envelope in terms of his creativity. That’s fun to watch,” Wilson said. “That’s probably where he feels the most comfortable, on the ice. That’s where he shows you his real personality.”
He plays with an exuberance that draws almost every eye in the building, and even as she tries to set aside a mother’s pride, Sharon Kariya knows it has always been that way.
“As a little child doing his skating lessons, you just zoomed in to him” she said. “It was electrifying because you could just tell he so enjoyed doing it.”
The people who know Kariya best say his game is the product of an extremely analytical mind, one that anticipates actions and reactions, points and counterpoints.
“As much as he is very spontaneous, very creative and imaginative, that in itself is part of his game plan,” said Renney, the Canadian Olympic coach.
A split-second improvisation can have a polished look, almost as if he’s done it before.
“I think it’s something he’s already seen, already done many times in his mind, maybe 10, maybe 50 times,” Montgomery said. “When he does it, it looks new, but it isn’t new to him.
“I know what he does the night before a game is he lies down and listens to soft music. It’s a mental thing, and he wouldn’t really have to even listen to the tape, he knows it by heart. He gets into a deep concentration and sees himself making plays and trying new moves.”
Kariya still thinks through situations at night before he goes to sleep, and as he sits through long plane flights. The tape, though, is history, worn out by constant playing.
“Off the ice, when you’re sleeping in bed, it helps to visualize things,” he said. “Then when I’m on the ice, it allows me to do things without thinking. Otherwise you’re constantly doing your thinking on the ice instead of reacting and letting it flow.”
The same disciplined, logical mind has made every important decision in Kariya’s life seem drawn-out and deliberate. The business major in him considered the Ducks’ contract offers with such a poker face it unsettled as veteran a negotiator as Ferreira, who suddenly wasn’t sure what Kariya would do at all.
Kariya took weeks to decide if he would return to Maine for the fall semester before the Olympics, weeks to decide if he would go back to Maine or start negotiating with the Ducks after the Olympics, and day upon nerve-racking day--for the Ducks--to decide if he would accept their last offer.
“He’s never in a rush to make a decision,” Montgomery said. “He analyzes the pros and cons. Maybe people should learn from that, because every decision he’s made has been the right decision.”
Once a decision is made, though, his creativity transforms even coaches and teammates into spectators, and anyone who has been around him long has a favorite Kariya move.
“The most amazing thing I’ve seen him do, he was coming across the blue line and he faked a drop pass to me,” Montgomery said. “I thought it was coming, then he takes a stride and taps it back with his skate and up to his stick and takes a shot right off. It’s just the things he can do with the puck and his skates that amaze me.”
The one that draws raves is the 360-degree spin-a-rama, a move Kariya keeps under wraps until the right moment appears.
Renney remembers, “there was one I saw where he came from the right boards, through the neutral zone, across the red line all the way to the left wing boards, threw the puck in front of him and did a 360 as the defenseman went to play his body. Paul put the puck through the defenseman’s legs and then Paul is alone behind the defensemen who by that time is on his knees. Paul picked it up behind him, all alone in front of the net.”
On the ice after practice or in his room watching tape, Kariya is constantly toying with and trying to perfect his game.
“He’s got that ability to be creative in looking at himself and specifically identify areas where he can improve himself,” said Walsh, the Maine coach. “It’s rare in the ‘90s to have terrific players who keep from getting satisfied.” Having an ability to improve your game off the ice is important when you grow up in temperate North Vancouver, not exactly the land of frozen ponds and unlimited ice access. So much of what Kariya has learned has been off a TV screen, or imagined in his mind.
“He’ll go into the back yard and practice shooting the puck, then he’ll come in and stick-handle on the rec room floor,” Sharon Kariya said. “He spends a lot of time doing that. (Younger brothers) Steven and Martin play a lot with Paul and they’re always trying new things.
“It hasn’t really mattered whether he’s playing golf, playing tennis or swimming. He studies the sport and works very diligently at improving in the sport. My husband would work with the children when they learned to do the butterfly or the breaststroke, and they’d do it (in the rec room) before they went into the pool.”
After the Olympics, where Canada lost the gold medal to Sweden in a shootout when Kariya missed the final penalty shot, breakaways became one of his little obsessions.
“Obviously, my breakaways need a lot of work,” he said, overstating the case against himself. “You always try to constantly improve. You have to analyze your game and see where you get your scoring chances. I seem to get one breakaway a game. It’s just recognizing what you need to do. It’s seeing where the goalie is in the net, seeing what’s open. I always have a move in the back of my mind, but you take what the goalie gives you.”
His other projects have been more unusual. A left-handed shooter, he has worked on a right-handed wraparound shot so he can score from either side of the net without having to use his backhand. He’s also honing a right-handed one-time shot to use when the pass is coming to that side of his body. And one-timing the puck--shooting off the pass in one swift motion without stopping the puck--is so difficult there are plenty of NHL players who can’t do it on their natural shooting side.
In another drill, he works to knock down waist-high passes with his stick, a skill that is useful to control the puck on breakaway chances. What is his success rate? 70%? 80%? What you want, Kariya says quietly, is 100%.
“The nice thing is, he’s a perfectionist in striving to improve,” said Walsh, the Maine coach. “He’s not a perfectionist who gets caught up or overly negative if perfection doesn’t happen.”
The perfect perfectionist.