Dana Point, California is where Paul Kariya calls home.
It has a stretch of beautiful beaches that have some of the best surfing in the world. Just what he wants. And it is where you will find Paul Kariya most days.
It’s not too far from the Ducks home in Anaheim, but for Kariya, now seven years removed from the game, it might as well be a world away. For Kariya, who will be officially inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, hockey was his life’s passion.
But that passion was stolen away at age 35, after 15 seasons. Six concussions, all of them via illegal hits he says, had taken their toll.
Today, his passion is surfing.
It offered him a new challenge in his life, allowed him to remain fit, and with his surfing buddies – the likes of Scott Niedermayer and Joe Sakic amongst others – in some ways it offers a routine that mimicks the hockey routine, of being together with the boys to compete and then to socialize after.
One of the most dedicated and well-prepared players, obsessed with the pursuit of perfection, surfing has provided a new focus and goal. It has filled a void in his life. Kariya was a point-a-game player during his NHL career. His name belonged in the same sentence with the very best.
By age 21, he had scored 50 goals in a season. But because of the concussions, in many ways he may have peaked at the age of 23, though he played on. And he continued to play and be really good. He took his game to another level in 1996, when Teemu Selanne arrived in Anaheim to play alongside Kariya with the Mighty Ducks.
You couldn’t meet two more different guys off the ice, but they understood each other on the ice and quickly became one of the most dynamic duos in the league. Sadly, another concussion robbed Kariya of the opportunity of playing for Canada in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. Of Japanese heritage, he calls that his biggest disappointment. He did share Olympic gold in 2002, but there was still a measure of disappointment.
In 2003, after Selanne had moved on, Kariya and the Ducks made it to their first Stanley Cup final against the New Jersey Devils.
There may be no night that captures the essence of Kariya’s career more than game six of that series. That night, the Ducks trailing in the series 3-2, is still remembered as being one of the greatest nights in southern California hockey lore.
And it’s a night and the seventh game that followed that Kariya doesn’t remember.
It was during that sixth game that Kariya was rocked by Devils defenceman Scott Stevens in open ice, near the New Jersey blue line. Kariya was out on the ice for almost a minute. It was frightening. But then suddenly came to. Stevens told us he sat on the bench hoping and hoping that Kariya would get up. He was scared. Kariya, who still believes it was a late, dirty hit, did get up and needed to be assisted off the ice.
Somehow, and hopefully it would never happen now, Kariya managed to return to the game and score an electrifying goal. And he didn’t remember it until he saw the video. One of the worst nights in his life, was also one of the best.
And for all the highlights in his career, it’s probably the game by which Kariya is remembered most. And he is okay with that. It was a “remember where you were moment.”
The Ducks would go on to lose the series and Kariya would move on, with stops over the next six seasons with Colorado, Nashville and St. Louis before the sixth and final concussion, delivered by Patrick Kaleta, ultimately ended his career at the age of 35. He retired in 2010.
Kariya was in a bad, bad way physically. He disappeared from the game and even from his friends for a long while because he needed the separation and he needed the time to get healthy. He suffered major neurological damage. Kariya has pretty much been off the radar for the past seven years, until the Hall of Fame announcement.
We spent a couple of days with him in California and he was terrific company. He is in a good place, in great spirits. His health is good. He loves his surfing and his time with his partner, Valerie. And he is thrilled to be going into the Hall of Fame, even if the greatness of the body of his career is somewhat overshadowed by that one game.
Kariya has also made piece with the game itself.
The anger he felt after being forced out has subsided. He would dearly still love to be playing, but perspective has allowed him to move on and appreciate what he had, even if it wasn’t enough. And while he has been in the shadows, we learned that Kariya has been closer to the game than most know. He doesn’t go to games, but he pays close attention. When friends or former teammates come through town, he often connects.
And when asked if he would consider getting back in the game, because so many of his close friends such as Rob Blake and Sakic and Niedermayer have remained close to it, he said the door isn’t closed. But he would only get back if he felt 100 per cent invested.
Because that is how Paul Kariya was as a player, dedicated beyond belief to be the best.
It’s how he is as a surfer. And it’s how he would have to be to return as a coach, a scout or even a general manager.