Paul Kariya officially ended his playing career yesterday, something fans have been sadly awaiting for the last year or so. Ever since he suffered his most recent concussion at the hands of Sabres goon Patrick Kaleta, there was a sense that we wouldn't see him skate again. And so ends the 15-year playing career of one of the most enjoyable players I've ever had the privilege to watch.
When he arrived in the NHL in 1994, the game was much different. Players of his size (5' 10", 180) did not have success on a regular basis. Yet expectations for him were very high. The fourth overall pick in the 1993 draft held out for 14 months before finally agreeing to a three year, $6.5 million contract—which is still a pretty good chunk of money for a rookie 17 years later.
The Hobey Baker Award winner was expected to do great things, and he didn't disappoint. He put up 39 points in 47 games as a rookie, and was a finalist for the Rookie of the Year Award. He followed up with what statistically would prove to be his best season, scoring 50 goals and 108 points playing on a line with Steve Rucchin and the recently acquired Teemu Selanne.
That pairing would become a force in Anaheim for the next several years. Kariya won the first of his two Lady Byng Trophies that year, played in the all-star game and was named a First Team All-Star at season's end.
In his third season, 1996-97, Kariya was named captain of the Mighty Ducks, becoming the youngest captain in the NHL at the time. He managed to put up 99 points in just 69 games, once again being named a First Team NHL All-Star and truly becoming one of the league's superstars.
He was a driving force in getting the Mighty Ducks to their first playoff appearance, and scored the overtime goal in Game 6 against the Phoenix Coyotes to force Game 7, which they won. Although they lost to the eventual cup champion Red Wings in the next round, this was a huge step for the franchise.
How Will You Remember Kariya?
In 1997-1998, Kariya held out for a new contract and missed 32 games to start the year, playing in only 22 all year and scoring 31 points. The Mighty Ducks missed the playoffs.
Following the 1998-1999 season, in which he put up his final 100-point campaign with 101, the team struggled for a few years. Kariya suffered his second concussion on a grisly crosscheck to the face from Gary Suter. Teemu Selanne was traded to San Jose, and the team bottomed out by finishing 13th in 2001-2002.
Then Kariya's luck changed.
In 2002-2003 the team signed Mike Babcock to be its coach. They made an immediate improvement, finishing seventh in the conference, and the playoff run that followed was the stuff of legend. They swept the second-seeded Red Wings, beat the Dallas Stars in six and swept the Minnesota Wild to make it to their first Stanley Cup Finals against the heavily favored New Jersey Devils.
It was in Game 6, down 3-2 in the series, that Kariya made the play that he will best be remembered for. With 13:44 to go in the second period, he cut across the center of the ice after passing the puck and was absolutely crushed by a Scott Stevens elbow. The hit would be suspendable by today's standards, and even at the time was considered a dirty hit. Kariya remained on the ice for several minutes and was certainly not expected to return.
But late in the game he did just that, and scored one of the most memorable goals in Stanley Cup Finals history that sealed the win for the Mighty Ducks, prompting the "Off the floor! On the board! Paul Kariya!" call from Gary Thorne. Unfortunately, the team lost Game 7, and it would be the closest Kariya would ever come to a Stanley Cup.
He left the team for Colorado the following year, hoping to win the Cup with former teammate Teemu Selanne. Unfortunately, he dealt with injuries in his year there before going to Nashville. He revitalized his career somewhat there, but again could not come close to winning a Stanley Cup.
The final contract he signed was with the St. Louis Blues, where he put up 123 points in 168 games over three seasons. Unfortunately, his concussion issues finally caught up to him, and the brain damage he suffered caused him to call it quits on a remarkable career.
Kariya finished with 989 points in 989 games, exactly a one-point per game pace, and was a six-time all star who was one of the most exciting players in the league during his prime. I don't think anyone questions his decision to retire, especially considering all of the new information about concussions in the last few years. The entire hockey community will certainly miss seeing No. 9 on game day.