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Orange County’s Hero

What Paul Kariya meant to the fans who watched him play

Paul Kariya looks to pass Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images/NHLI

The noise of the crowd seemed to echo every which way across the arena. Everyone in their seats restless, unable to settle for even a second. The puck was thrown across the ice to a streaking Paul Kariya along the boards. It seemed like a routine play heading into the offensive zone, until Karyia got to the face off dot and let it rip.

PING! Post and in over the glove.

And then...silence.

This was not Kariya’s legendary Game 6 goal in the Stanley Cup Finals against the New Jersey Devils. This was overtime in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Quarterfinal against the Phoenix Coyotes.

Kyle Shohara, Digital Content Producer for the Anaheim Ducks, says that overtime goal in Phoenix was his greatest memory of the young captain.

“​It was the franchise’s first playoff series and it was all new to me. But I remember leaping out of my chair and jumping up and down after he scored. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”

Such was the life of Mighty Ducks of Anaheim fans during Paul Kariya’s playing days with the team. To most outside of Southern California, he is known for his iconic Stanley Cup Finals goal after returning from being knocked unconscious on the ice earlier in the game.

Asking Ducks fans what they remember about the undersized former captain and 4th overall pick, however, and you get a more diverse set of responses, such as Kyle’s.

“For me, the biggest impact was seeing an Asian player, specifically Japanese like myself, being so skilled and successful at the highest level,” San Diego fan Christa Shishino said. “It was amazing, considering all of the jokes we make, especially growing up, about Asians being small and short.

Shohara pointed out how dynamic he was. In an era where often times role players with narrow game focuses were a way of life for NHL teams, having a player who could do so much on the ice was a sight to behold; a blueprint for the modern day speedy and skilled NHL player 20 years ahead of its time.

JC McDonough, our fearless leader here at Anaheim Calling, echoes that sentiment. “Watching him play was amazing, especially alongside Teemu...they’re both the reason why I became such a huge hockey fan. I fell in love with the game watching the skill and speed of both Kariya and Selanne.”

This video illustrated just how incredible that duo was.

Reagan Guariello of Orange, however, summed up his playing style best as a child spending their formative years as a fan of the Mighty Ducks. “There was an air about the ice when he was playing. When he was on the ice, you knew. Even having trouble reading the jerseys with my bad vision, I could pretty much pick out Kariya from everyone else just from his body language and tone of play.”

This, perhaps of all the revering of him as a hockey player, accurately sums up the feelings of watching this explosive and unique talent lead a Disney-fied hockey team into the realm of real contenders.

Kings V Mighty Ducks

In recent interviews, Kariya has expressed some frustration at his career being reduced to his famous goal in the 2003 Finals. And who could blame him? It is constantly shown in NHL historical highlight reels and immortalized by the Ducks themselves, yet the rest of his play is featured much more sparsely. Yes, he played for only 15 years, a relatively short career for a hockey player of his caliber, and yes it was ended by concussions such as the one sustained that night.

But that night, highlights of which are criticized by some for glorifying the aftermath of such a serious head injury, can be looked upon in a more revealing light. Rachel Canalita of Colorado Springs sums up what it felt like watching Kariya be knocked unconscious onto the ice.

“I was a mess when he got knocked out. And especially for a kid who's just driven on emotions and doesn't really know yet how to keep a level head in sports, it was horrifying.”

Her reaction mirrored the rest of the Mighty Ducks fandom as they saw their captain lying motionless. It is never a good feeling watching any player from your favorite team get severely injured. Kariya, though, was an entire generation of new hockey fans incarnate. The shiver down the spine and the sickening feeling of watching a hero for thousands upon thousands of people appear as if his career was in jeopardy on hockey’s biggest stage reflects what he meant, and continues to mean, to those who invested in his success.

By understanding what fans were feeling when Kariya went down that night in 2003, it becomes apparent that his career cannot possibly be condensed into a single highlight. That kind of admiration is built up over years of highlights and play and leadership that endeared him to so many.

Islanders v Avalanche

That endearment led to a difficult time for those fans who watched Kariya walk away from the team hot off a cinderella Stanley Cup Finals run to join a superteam in Colorado that summer.

While there was certainly plenty of anger at him leaving, some of which still holds over with certain fans to this day, the fans I talked to in detail for this piece expressed more a theme of sadness than anger.

“I wasn’t angry when Paul left, just sad that he wouldn’t be a Duck anymore,” McDonough remembered.

Guariello echoed those words. “Not angry. More sad and confused because at the time and age, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to trades and injuries and stuff like that.”

Indeed, there were many who believed Kariya would be a Duck for life. His importance to the fans created that perception that manifested itself in sadness and confusion upon his departure from the franchise.

I must admit, I did not become a hockey fan until the 2010-2011 season. Growing up in Orange County, I was always aware of the Ducks, including their 2007 Finals run. But I did not pay attention as I was totally invested in Angels baseball in my youth.

With tonight’s ceremony honoring Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne being inducted into the Hockey Hall Of Fame, I reflected and felt remorse for the fact that I never really understood who Paul Kariya was or what he meant to the Orange County hockey scene in the late 90s and early 2000s. Understanding the history of the Ducks and seeing the reactions of the numerous fans who expressed an unbridled sense of joy at the news that number 9 would be inducted into the Hall Of Fame and set foot in Honda Center for only the second time since he retired, led me to dig deep into the early Ducks fandom. I wanted to truly understand just how much the region connected with him.

It is clear that after speaking to many who actually saw him play here in Orange County, Kariya is responsible for much of the Ducks fandom today.

While Wayne Getzky put hockey on the Southern California map with his trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angles Kings in 1988, Paul Kariya bred an entirely new generation of hockey fans just down the 5 freeway in a region that, to many locals, could not be more different.

Orange County residents have a sort of fierce pride at maintaining their societal and cultural differences from the Los Angeles area. We are often lumped into the same sentence as Los Angels as far as geographical information is concerned. Gretzky legitimized hockey in a non-traditional market, yes, but behind the orange curtain, people cried out for their own representative.

In that sense, if Gretzky made hockey relevant in Orange County, then Kariya gave it its soul.