Larry Wigge | NHL.com columnist
Dec 22, 2006, 12:00 PM EST
A few minutes with Paul Kariya is like getting a dissertation on the values of life and how those same values work in such a fast-paced team sport as hockey, where there's a more heady perspective above and beyond goals and assists.
"My parents were school teachers and they told me that nothing comes easy. You have to work hard for everything," Kariya says. "It was never a hockey-first mentality. When I came home from school, it was never, ‘How many goals did you score?' It was more like, ‘How many A's did you get on your report card?' "
Kariya smiles and pauses for a minute ... maybe longer than it takes him to decide whether to pass the puck or shoot when he's on the ice. Then, he continues, "My mom still gives me crap, because I don't have my college degree yet."
Think about that for a moment. Paul Kariya is in his 12th season in the NHL. He's scored nearly 350 NHL goals and more than 800 points. He's scored 40 or more goals three times, 100 or more points twice. He has won an NCAA championship at the University of Maine, a gold medal while playing for Canada in the Olympics in 2002, has gotten to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, only to lose to New Jersey in 2003. And mom wants to know why he hasn't finished his degree in business.
Tough standards, but fair, according to Kariya. "Didn't your coaches growing up teach you that there was no ‘I' in hockey and that nothing in life comes without hard work?"
I'll tell you one thing, Tetsuhiko, Paul's late father, and Sharon Kariya are very, very proud of the second of their five children for the way he represents himself every day of his life.
On the ice, Paul is the ultimate captain. Off the ice, he's always there for his teammates ... a teacher just like his parents.
"Paul will come up to you in practice and tell you how he thinks a certain play might work better," said Carolina Hurricanes winger Scott Walker, who played for one season with Paul in Nashville. "It's like he's a fountain of hockey information -- all good. And when you get into that same situation again, it works just like he said he thought it might."
Twelve seasons in the NHL at a high level is a testament to how good Kariya has been. And it's something he's very proud of.
"It's funny when you think about it," Paul said. "I remember reading somewhere that the average person changes jobs like seven or eight times in a lifetime now. I haven't changed jobs, just cities, where I'm doing my job. I really feel fortunate to have been able to earn a living at something that I really love doing, where every experience is new and it helps you grow as a person ... and, at the end of the day, your real life is judged more than just on winning and losing, but rather that you've learned what works and what doesn't."
Some say a great goal-scorer/a great player, has to be at least a little bit selfish. But Kariya will argue that point for hours.
"I don't think being selfish ever plays a role in sports, whether it is scoring goals or whatever," he argues. "I think you have to be dedicated to your profession and the players around you. You've got to love what you do and put in the extra work it takes for you and your team to be better.
"When you combine talent and hard work, I think you can have a magical combination. A Michael Jordan, for instance, was one of the hardest working athletes ever. Can you tell me that either he or Wayne Gretzky or Joe Montana was more interested in statistics than he was in helping his team be the best it could be? Of course, not."
Kariya fondly remembers how his dad, who was a rugby player for Canada's national team, was also a star as a schoolteacher and in other sports.
"He was a great role model for all of us," Paul said, smiling widely. "I remember him taking up hockey when he was 30-35 and being really good at it right away. He played in a couple recreational leagues and he'd score a couple of goals almost every game. But it wasn't so much fun when I turned pro and might be in a little slump and he'd call and try to tell me what I was doing wrong."
What also wasn't fun for Paul was hearing coaches say he was too small to play, when he was growing up.
"I was never the star on my team, but that was OK, since I was usually playing against kids that were older than me from atom, right on through bantams and on up," Kariya told me. "I wasn't the big goal scorer, but I was just as happy setting up others for goals. I learned from everything I did ... everything that was going on around me."
But then Kariya went to Penticton of the British Columbia Tier II junior league and 46 goals and 132 points in just 40 games. That performance earned him scholarship offers from all over the United States and a two-year commitment to play at Maine, where Paul earned the Hobey Baker Award as U.S. College Hockey Player of the Year in 1993 and, one year later, after winning a gold medal in the World Junior Tournament and a silver medal at the Olympics, the Black Bears won the NCAA title and Paul was the fourth pick overall in the 1994 draft by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
Kariya views each stop as a part of making his career/life successful.
"Maine was the most fun I've ever had," Paul admitted. "I learned more about myself. I had never been thousands of miles away from Vancouver and I learned how to learn from watching other people, even outside the classroom. Coach Sean Walsh, assistant coach Grant Standbrook, I learned more about hockey from them.
"When I talk about the different teams I played for, some people might think I wouldn't want to talk about the one year I had in Colorado. But, even though I was hurt (just five games into the season), I'll cherish the time I got to spend with Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, two of the greatest centers in the history of the game. I'd never second-guess my decision to go to Denver and try to win a Stanley Cup there along with my pal Teemu Selanne."
The power of positive thinking, eh? That's not just a facade with Paul Kariya, who has always had an appetite for learning and an aptitude for making himself better on the playing field.
When he wanted to improve his hand/eye coordination, he took up juggling. To improve his shooting accuracy, he taped a small ‘x' to the boards and fired pucks at it until the ‘x' was obliterated. All through the 2003 playoffs, Paul played with a separated shoulder that required rehabilitation. One day, Kariya was on the beach near his home for a barbecue, with a friend and surfer named Adrian Crook, who invited him to paddle around on his board in the hopes of loosening up and possibly strengthening the shoulder.
"I swam a lot competitively when I was younger and so, I wasn't a complete novice about how to paddle, but it's one of the hardest upper-body workouts I've ever done," Kariya said. "Conditioning-wise, especially when you're just starting out, because you're so bad, you put yourself in bad positions where you have to paddle through waves. So I did it a couple of times that year and now I surf regularly in the summer."
A natural. As an athlete or a leader. Paul Kariya is clearly a student of life and hockey.
"I try to watch every player in the league when I'm on the bench," Kariya admitted. "Sometimes I'll tape a game to watch a new player in the league. Or I might buy a book to read about what a Brett Hull said about shooting, what Mario Lemieux said about passing or what Steve Yzerman said about leadership. You never know when you can pick up a move, or see the tendency of an opponent that might help you."
New York Rangers star Brendan Shanahan is a long-time believer in Kariya.
"He's the ultimate in what a thinking man's player would be," Shanahan once told me. "I remember going to a World Championship one year when I was playing in Hartford and meeting Paul for the first time. He just walked up to me to introduce himself and tell me that we were scheduled to play on the same line in that tournament.
"The next thing I know, he's asking me if I still like to get the puck at the edge of the faceoff circles for one-timers and at the left edge of the goal crease. I'm thinking, 'Wow! What's with this guy?' But his information was right on. Then he told me he studies the moves of all the great players. I was blown away."
Today, he has one thing in mind: Helping the Nashville Predators make a run at the Stanley Cup.
"Some of the kids come up to me and ask, ‘How did it feel to play in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2003?' " Kariya blushed. "I tell them that there is no feeling like it. I've played 12 years in this league and I've only been there once. I tell them there are 30 teams in the NHL, so it's a very difficult goal to achieve ... but don't quit trying to achieve it. I tell them I cherish ever minute I had in that Stanley Cup chase and I cherish ever minute I have left in trying to get back there.
"(Predators GM) David Poile and (coach) Barry Trotz have created a very rich atmosphere here in Nashville. The fans are just unbelievable. They don't get starstruck when they meet you, they just thank you for being a part of their city and their team. It's a feeling like being part of an even bigger team that stretches all throughout the area and makes you want to work even harder for them."