Kariya finally gets closure with Hall of Fame induction

Paul Kariya talks about his career on the ice, his friend Teemu Selanne and the way his career came to an end.

TORONTO – Teemu Selanne calls it “closure.” He looks at good friend Paul Kariya and sees a completely different man in the four months since he was called to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“The way how Paul’s career ended, he didn’t have a chance to say goodbyes,” Selanne said Friday. “He didn’t have a closure for himself and for his teammates and his fans and everything. So I think this is going to be the one, that he’s going to be happy. I think that’s going to bring him back.

“I really believe. It’s amazing how this has changed him.”

Kariya is emerging from the shadows – from a private life of surfing and anonymity in Southern California – to accept hockey’s highest honour. The 43-year-old would quibble with that characterization, but get this: When he stood alongside Selanne and the other inductees holding a hockey stick in a Friday afternoon photo-op, it was the first time he’d touched one since April 10, 2010.

His final NHL game.

“He probably says that [he hasn’t] disappeared, but nobody has found him,” said Selanne.

That’s what make this particularly Hall of Fame weekend so special.

Kariya was blown away by the outpouring of texts and calls he received in the wake of being elected in June. He’d even drifted somewhat from Selanne in the years since retirement and suddenly the longtime teammates found themselves in touch daily.

“The way that we have been organizing this whole weekend for months now, he has done like 90 per cent of all the work,” said Selanne. “And he’s so excited, he wants to send invitations, he calls me five times a day. He gets mad when I don’t answer on the golf course.

“He wants to do everything perfect here too, you know, that’s how he [does] things. For sure I feel that this is closure. He’s so pumped about this weekend and I’m so happy to see that.”

You get a slightly different version of events from Kariya, who admits he “snuck in” to the only NHL game he’s attended since his playing days – the last one Selanne skated in at Honda Center as a member of the Ducks.

Kariya was forced to retire because of post-concussion syndrome. He was just 11 games shy of 1,000 for his career but doctors made it clear that he didn’t have the option to pursue the milestone.

“The most important thing at that time was just to get healthy,” he explained. “I just wanted to feel normal again. I was in rehab, hyperbaric oxygen chambers for five days a week, doing neuro feedback and stuff like this to get my brain back working properly again.”

It took nearly two years.

Rather than looking for work in hockey afterwards, he pursued other interests. What he loved about the sport was playing it, and he couldn’t do that any longer.

“When I retired, I still felt like I had a lot of gas left in my tank as an athlete,” said Kariya. “Take away the concussions, I felt unbelievable. I had my legs, I had good jump and pop in my game. So when that was taken away from me I felt like I needed to continue doing things athletically.”

That’s where the surfing came in. He’s on the water regularly and missed Lanny MacDonald’s official welcome call to the Hall because he was out chasing waves. It’s been a bad year for shark attacks in California, but Kariya says “I’m much more frightened of the drivers on the 5 Freeway.”

He’s taken up ballroom dancing and other activities as well.

“I’ve done a lot of snowboarding and skiing and cross-country skiing,” said Kariya. “The Niedermayer brothers, the three of us, we do a Catskiing trip every year up to B.C. I do some splitboarding, which is climbing up the mountain on your own power and coming down. There’s a lot of things.

“I love being an athlete.”

That is what he must weigh when the question inevitably rises about whether he’ll ever work in hockey. He counts Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green and Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic among his close friends, and undoubtedly has a clear window into what those kind of jobs entail.

For what it’s worth, Selanne thinks it’s only a matter of time – “if you find some role for him that he doesn’t have to do every day, but he can still give the passion somehow back, I think it’s going to happen” – but Kariya is far less certain.

He points out that no team has ever gone beyond “tire kicking” with him. And he’s never expressed a desire for work.

“You know, if there was a big swell coming in and I was a general manager and there was work to be done, then I better do the work and not worry about that,” said Kariya. “That’s something that I’ve got to think about.”

What matters now is that he is healthy and happy. A man who burst on the scene with Team Canada at the 1994 Olympics and became a NHL star says that he feels no ill-effects of the six concussions that ended his career.

Even though the Hall of Fame induction has thrust Kariya back into the spotlight, he’s thrilled to be there – for one weekend, anyways.

“I would never use ‘dream come true’ because it’s so far out of the realm of dream,” he said. “As a kid growing up, you think about maybe one day playing in the NHL or one day representing your country, but a Hall of Fame was beyond that.

“It’s a surreal experience.”