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The Duck King: Paul Kariya
By Bob Cunningham

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Photo courtesy Mighty Ducks
Some have called him the best young hockey player to come along in a decade. Others have even gone so far as to label him “Gretzky Junior,” or “The Next Great One.” But whether you subscribe to the belief that Paul Kariya will really be the National Hockey League’s next superstar, or simply believe he has the potential to be a good pro, expectations are high for the Vancouver native who turned 20 years old on October 16.

When the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim made Kariya their inaugural pick in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, they knew they were getting someone who had the potential to be truly special. Potential, of course, is the operative word, because Kariya had yet to play in an NHL game.

“I really feel he is the most exciting player to come out of the draft in the last 10 or 12 years,” said Mighty Ducks General Manager Jack Ferreira shortly after tabbing Kariya with the fourth choice overall. “And we felt he was best suited for this franchise.”

In reality, a player with the talent and record of success that Kariya sports would be well-suited to any team. But what he specifically brings to Anaheim is a go-to scoring threat that the fledgling franchise lacked in its otherwise successful first season.

“He’s exciting. Very creative with the puck,” Ferreira says. “He’s one of those who makes the players around him better. He has speed and he sees the ice as well as anybody.”

“He can control a hockey game,” added Director of Player Personnel David McNab. “He is so dangerous, the other team has to be concerned about him at all times.”

If you go by the numbers, Kariya’s potential would seem unlimited. At Penticton, of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, he scored 244 points in 94 games. At the University of Maine, he tallied 100 points in 39 games in 1992-93 to become the first freshman ever to claim the coveted Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player. He also led Maine to a national title that year. Kariya finished his college career with 124 points in 51 games.

Photo courtesy Team Canada
A “can’t miss” international star

He did equally well in his extensive experience in international play. On the Canadian National Team, he notched 60 points in 39 games (which included the World Championships and the 1994 Olympic Games). He was also a two-year member of the Canadian Junior National Team.

The secret to Kariya’s success, according to one scouting report: “He makes it look easy. Effortless puck-handling, very fast, quick and accurate shot, excellent passer. He’s even an average checker despite his lack of size (5-11, 175 pounds). This kid’s a can’t-miss. He works hard, but he doesn’t look like he’s working hard. That’s a Gretzky trait.”

The most difficult task for Kariya in the early stages of his career, of course, will be to live up to the immensely lofty expectations forced upon him by his obvious ability. To his credit, he appears to taking it all in stride.

“I’m not really aware of any big expectations,” Kariya said. “I don’t read the papers or watch ESPN or anything like that. All I’m interested in doing is playing as well as I can, and as hard as I can, for Coach (Ron) Wilson and my teammates.

“What I’m interested in is winning.”

Wilson believes that Kariya can immediately have a significant impact in the NHL, but he’s careful not to put the pressure on Kariya that the offense will depend solely on him.

“We have a lot of versatility now that we didn’t have last year,” Wilson explained. “Paul’s a great playmaker and he can also score a lot of goals. But we have others on this team that are capable of scoring. It won’t all be up to Paul.”

Another major dilemma for Kariya—and one that most players would love to have—is what to do with all that money the Ducks are paying him. After a lengthy negotiation period and a brief holdout, Kariya signed for three years at more than $2 million per annum.

“I’m a pretty conservative guy, so I don’t think the money will change me,” says Kariya. “I hope it doesn’t.”

Mighty Ducks management agreed to the steep investment after Kariya shined in international play at the World Championships and Olympics. Team Canada won gold at the Championships and an Olympic silver, and Kariya played extremely well against the best competition he had ever faced.

Contract is “justified”

“I’m very thankful for having the opportunity to play in the Olympics. It was a dream come true,” Kariya said. “I know I’m a better player for having experienced it.”

Ferreira agreed.

“Paul took his game to a new level. His performance justified taking his contract to that level,” said the GM.

Getting used to the unique lifestyle enjoyed by Southern Californians could also present an obstacle for a native of Western Canada. But Kariya believes he has more important concerns.

“Playing good hockey is what’s important,” he says. “As for coming to Southern California, I’m excited. I know that hockey is really taking off here and it’s only a two-hour plane ride (actually closer to three-and-a-half) from my family.”

Kariya may be at ease away from the game, but long before the opening faceoff, his intense game-mode is engaged. He practices hard, prepares harder and never lets up, even when it’s someone else’s turn to play.

“Even when he’s not in the game, he’s in the game,” Wilson told The Orange County Register. He’s standing on the bench every time there’s a whistle. He wants to be on the ice all the time.”

It’s hard for many to believe that a player with so much obvious natural talent puts in more than his share of effort. But Kariya is a strong believer that his prowess has come only because he was willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

“I admit that I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but it wasn’t handed to me,” he says. “All I’ve done my whole life basically is practice hockey. I work hard, and sometimes I see results.

“And obviously, there’s a whole lot more to do. I haven’t really accomplished all that much.”

During the Ducks training camp in September, Kariya worked on a line with Russians Valeri Karpov and Anatoli Semenov. The trio worked well together almost from the get-go, with the deft, speedy Kariya complementing the styles of his two Russian teammates. The results have been obvious in a perusal of the box scores of the Ducks’ exhibition games: led by Kariya’s 11 points in seven games, the line has been Anaheim’s most effective.

Should ignite the power play

Kariya’s most vital role on the team, though, at least early in the season, will be to bring the Anaheim power play to life. The Ducks’ 14.4 percent success rate a year ago was dead last, attributable primarily to an inability to get set-up in a timely fashion. Kariya should change that, according to Ferreira.

“It took us a minute-and-a-half to get anything going on a power play last year,” he said. “This year (in the exhibition season) we’re moving the puck around much better. Now it’s just a matter of everyone, including Paul, getting their timing down and knowing one another a little better.”

There’s little doubt that Kariya will need only a short time to get fully in synch. But is he truly prepared to handle all the attention he’s receiving, and will likely get all season from fans, media and players alike?

For instance, his name appeared in the headline of the story covering his Sept. 13 NHL exhibition debut (he scored a goal during a 4-3 loss to the Dallas Stars) in every major Southern California newspaper, as well as at least two more in Texas.

Mighty Ducks public relations assistant Rob Scichili said that because there have been so many media requests for interviews, Kariya wouldn’t be made available to the press beyond brief after-practice group sessions until after the start of the regular season.

An Anaheim-area sports columnist is even soliciting readers to submit possible nicknames for Kariya, whom he labels as “The Mighty Ducks first franchise player.” All the buzz has to deflect Kariya from his game, doesn’t it?

“I keep telling myself to concentrate on playing well, and that won’t change,” Kariya explains. “You have to remember the things you did that got you all the attention to begin with. This is a business of ‘what have you done lately.’ I realize that.”

He realizes, too, that the points won’t come as easily at this level as it did in junior hockey, college and international play. But he’s still going after them.

“My role is to help our team score goals,” he said. “If we’re productive offensively, then I’m happy. I don’t think about statistics. Just wins.”



This first appeared in the 12/1994 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2003, Hockey Player® LLC and Hockey Player Magazine®
Posted: Dec 1, 2006, 15:25
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