Paul Kariya has a complicated legacy.
He was the original Mighty Duck. He captained the team to its first Stanley Cup Final. He scored one of the most memorable goals, not only in franchise history, but in NHL history. At one point, he held almost every meaningful franchise scoring record.
But we know how Kariya’s Mighty Ducks story ends. Less than a month after missing out on championship glory, Kariya took a $9 million pay cut to chase a Stanley Cup in Colorado. And he failed. Every time he returned to Anaheim, whether it be with the Avalanche, Nashville Predators, or St. Louis Blues, Kariya was greeted by the home fans in attendance with hearty boos.
There was no guarantee that Kariya’s No. 9 would ever hang from the Honda Center’s rafters. The Ducks, after taking No. 9 out of service for a number of years, did allow another star player to don that sweater, albeit with a different logo and different colors. Meanwhile, Kariya himself has maintained that he does not deserve the honor, indicating that only Stanley Cup champions have earned such prestige.
But Kariya did much more for the organization than providing bliss atop the NHL mountain. His electric style on the ice and the humble, reserved nature off it made Kariya an icon for not only the freshly-minted hockey fans in Southern California, but hockey nuts around North America.
That alone is why it was time to retire No. 9.
It’s probably taken for granted how much Kariya was set up for failure during his tenure with the Mighty Ducks.
Being selected as the first draft pick in franchise history — Kariya was taken fourth overall in the 1993 draft — bears enough responsibility in itself. But consider the situation Kariya was skating into: he was chosen by a franchise many in the hockey world thought destined to fail.
Who could blame them? A second professional hockey team in Southern California, this one being placed so near Disneyland, was seen as nothing more than the latest gimmick from commissioner Gary Bettman. “And they’re naming the team after a kids movie?” the pundits said. “How ridiculous.” Hockey men in Canada shook their fists.
And that’s all off the ice. On it, no team was in less of a position to succeed than an expansion franchise. The Mighty Ducks were not granted the same benefits as the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017, and to boot they were not even the only expansion team ready to enter the league. (The Florida Panthers would also be joining the NHL in 1993-94). Kariya didn’t immediately report to the Ducks in 1993, instead choosing to remain at the University of Maine for 12 games before joining the Canadian National Team for the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Kariya later arrived for the strike-shortened 1994-95, providing star power for a franchise that really needed it.
For much of his first season and a half with the Mighty Ducks, Kariya was a solo act, albeit a spectacular one. He finished his rookie season with 39 points in 47 games while placing third in the Calder Trophy voting. Kariya returned an improved player and a more willing shooter in his sophomore campaign, scoring 64 points and 29 goals in 53 games prior to a February 1996 trade that brought Teemu Selanne to Anaheim.
While the pair didn’t play together for as long as nostalgia would suggest, Kariya’s and Selanne’s chemistry provided highlights reminiscent of Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. The Ducks went 17-8-3 in 1995-96 after acquiring Selanne, narrowly missing out on the Mighty Ducks’ first playoff appearance due to a tiebreaker with, ironically, Selanne’s former team the Winnipeg Jets.
The pair guided the Mighty Ducks to the playoffs the next season, however, and boosted Anaheim to a seven-game series win over the Phoenix Coyotes, propelled by Kariya’s overtime winner in Game 6 assisted by, of course, Selanne.
While Kariya’s Hall of Fame appointment was controversial to some — exactly 989 points in 989 career games with no Stanley Cup victories and no significant post-season hardware aside from the Lady Byng — it’s easy to forget that Kariya was truly, at his peak, one of the NHL’s best players.
From 1995-96 to 1999-00, Kariya ranked sixth among all players in goals, sixth in points, fourth in points per game (minimum 100 games), fifth in goals per game, and first in shots on goal.
Only John LeClair, who played in 75 more games during that span, had more points among left wingers. Kariya, clearly, was the best in the NHL at his position. He was recognized as a first-team all star in both 1996 and 1997. He would’ve won the franchise’s first Hart Trophy for the league’s most valuable player in 1997 if not for a historic season from Buffalo Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek.
Kariya managed all this despite playing in an era of hockey designed to shut players like him down. The hooking, holding, illegal checks and more denied the Mighty Ducks winger of what could’ve been truly staggering statistics. Imagine Kariya in the 1980s, defensive systems be damned. Or, imagine him still in his prime in the mid-2000s when the NHL was cracking down on obstruction.
Like so many of the talented but smallish players of that time, Kariya was simply caught in the wrong era. That shouldn’t diminish his greatness, but amplify it.
There’s a part of Kariya’s story that makes you wonder. His career, clearly, was never the same after suffering post-concussion syndrome following a dirty blow to the head from Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Gary Suter in 1998.
It’s particularly heartbreaking because Kariya was at the peak of his powers that season. He missed the start of the season due to a contract holdout, and then his season ended prematurely because of that hit. But Kariya still recorded 31 points in 22 games, along with 17 goals. That pace over a full season has Kariya with 115 points and 63 goals, which are just monstrous numbers at that point in NHL history. His points per game of 1.41 and goals per game of 0.77 were handily the best in the league.
Kariya returned in 1998-99 but he was a different player then, more protective and less willing to take shots like the one Suter had delivered. Sadly, the NHL did him no favors in that respect, installing rules to eliminate head shots way after Kariya had suffered his fair share. Instead of being remembered for his play, Kariya is more a poster boy for the NHL’s effort to remove blows to the head from the game. If that’s ultimately his legacy, it’s a shame.
His career hit an all-time low on the ice from 2000 to 2002, as Selanne was dealt to the San Jose Sharks and the rest of the Mighty Ducks’ roster — which was already lacking behind its two stars — was now one of the worst in the league. In 2001-02, Kariya finished with 57 points despite playing in all 82 games. That points per game of 0.70 would be the worst of his career until his final season in 2009-10 with the St. Louis Blues.
Kariya, and the Mighty Ducks as a whole, bounced back in 2002-03. With Adam Oates acquired via free agency and Petr Sykora brought over in a trade from New Jersey, Kariya finally had some pieces to work with after the departure of Selanne. He totaled 81 points in 82 games and the Mighty Ducks returned to the playoffs. It was the captain who scored in overtime in Game 1 in Detroit, kickstarting one of the most improbable yet exhilarating runs in Stanley Cup Playoff history.
There are those that will never forgive Kariya for bolting to Colorado after coming so close to winning the Stanley Cup. That’s to be expected — his departure came in an era when most sports fans were far more forgiving to the teams they support than any player who decided to skip town.
Kariya, at that time, did something not all that dissimilar to what Kevin Durant did to the Oklahoma City Thunder a few years back. Consider the similarities: both were the first star player that their respective franchises had known and both came excruciatingly close to winning a championship with that franchise, only to leave at the most inopportune time for supposedly greener pastures (and leaving money on the table to do so).
Thunder fans, or New York Islanders fans, might disagree, but it seems sports fans these days are far more accepting of individual athletes doing what’s best for them instead of siding with the franchise itself.
Kariya thought, despite what the Mighty Ducks had done the previous season, that Colorado proved the best opportunity to win a championship. But as is the case with Durant, there’s more to it than chasing titles.
With the Avalanche, Kariya could play in a system that revolved around his strengths. Speed, skill and vision would dictate games, not the defensive, clutch-and-grab style that would be employed in Anaheim. By reuniting with Selanne and joining Joe Sakic, it was a chance for Kariya to play with all-stars every shift. Even a hypothetical pay cut wouldn’t have afforded him that opportunity in Anaheim.
Because of the presence of Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Rob Blake and others, Kariya would no longer be the focal point as he so often was with the Mighty Ducks. Instead, he could work in the background as he so obviously preferred.
Kariya in another uniform cut deep, because for so long he was the Mighty Ducks. He was the one constant beacon of light for a franchise that so often spun its wheels in the mud.
I am an example of Kariya’s reach.
Growing up in western New York, I had no natural allegiances to Anaheim or the Mighty Ducks. It’s a Sabres town where I’m from.
But something about Kariya’s game — his speed, his ability to break down the wing and rip a slapshot over the goalie’s shoulder, that impeccable backhand, his overall demeanor —gripped me.
He was my hero. I wore my shin pads over my tongues just like him, wrapped my tape the same way as him, often used the same Easton UltraLite stick as him, and begged to wear No. 9 on every team I ever played on in youth hockey. I took pride in my backhand, because like Kariya I wanted it to be the best among my peers. If I could’ve played left-handed instead of being a righty, I would’ve done that too.
On Oct. 20, 2000, two weeks before my 10th birthday, my parents took me to see the Mighty Ducks in Buffalo. We had access to go down into the bowels of the KeyBank Center, then known as HSBC Arena, where I’d have the chance to meet my hockey idol.
I was so nervous, and naturally Kariya was one of the last players out of the locker room. It took so long that my parents and I were concerned we’d missed him altogether. But he finally walked to our area and I, wearing my No. 9 white alternate Mighty Ducks jersey, simply froze. A moment I had been waiting for for so long, to meet Kariya, and I was too scared to go and ask for his autograph.
Because I was too nervous, too intimidated, too shocked that Kariya was actually standing there in front of me, my mother instead got his attention. He graciously walked over, introduced himself, signed my hockey card and posed for a photograph.
It was surreal. Oftentimes when meeting your sports hero, they can fall short of expectations. They brush you off because they’re not interested in taking a photo or signing an autograph. It’s like they’re above it all or they, understandably, don’t want to be the center of attention for once.
While I’ve heard stories over the years that Kariya could be cold toward some fans, he wasn’t that day. It was one of likely a billion fan interactions he’d had in his life, but that moment meant the world to me.
That’s why, despite the lack of a Stanley Cup, despite his exit from my favorite team, despite an unceremonious end to his playing career, retiring No. 9 is so appropriate.
Welcome home, Paul.