This is Episode Three of Kevin Wong’s Legends series, which features the individual performances of historical NHL players to showcase their styles of play. Episodes 1 (Wayne Gretzky) and 2 (Alexandre Daigle) can be found on CambieKev’s YouTube channel.
When the National Hockey League debuted its Pond of Dreams presentation at the 2000 NHL All-Star Game in Toronto, it had effectively decided who it wished to be its new faces of the league. At the edge of the pond stood the three most esteemed forwards in league history, and in front of them stood the new guard. Many a Canucks supporter could only feel dismayed upon witnessing Pavel Bure become the NHL’s back-to-back Rocket Richard Trophy winner in the immediate aftermath of his departure from Vancouver.
The Canucks had allowed Bure to slip away due to their own ineptitude and now watched as the NHL celebrated him as one of the four symbolic leaders of its new generation of stars. Bure was the league’s most exciting and dynamic player, and for eight years Vancouver called him its own.
Adjacent to him on that pond stood perhaps the most electrifying player to call Vancouver his own: Paul Kariya.
Kariya was born and raised in North Vancouver, and was one of the few contemporaries of Bure to demonstrate as much flair and excitement. Canucks supporters could only dream of seeing Kariya in their team’s uniform, but instead watched him shine in tandem with Teemu Selanne in Anaheim, dazzling with an array of crafty maneuvers and eagerly carving up the ice surface in order to create offense.
For viewers to be reminded of his brilliance, I present today the third installment of my new Legends Series. This presentation features Kariya’s playoff performance against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 2 of the 1997 Western Conference Semifinals.
He was one of the game’s quickest players, zipping across great distances as though he had been shot out of a cannon, his legs moving practically twice as fast as anybody else’s. Speed, agility, skill and vision defined his game. He could rifle the puck past the goaltender with a booming slap shot or generate a high-quality scoring chance by swerving a few times through the neutral zone with the puck before delivering it to a teammate.
Unlike Bure, who could create end-to-end opportunities effortlessly and stick-handle around numerous opponents on a single rush, Kariya commonly deferred the puck to his teammates in the neutral zone and then darted up the ice at full speed for a return feed. Give-and-go opportunities became the norm for Kariya, especially on his usual line alongside the speedy Selanne and centerman Steve Rucchin.
Scouts initially compared him to Wayne Gretzky, a testament to his vision and his tendency to loop around the neutral zone with the puck. While those sentiments soon dwindled, he became the first breakout star of the 1993 NHL Draft class and, like Gretzky, was an ambassador for hockey in California.
Not long after debuting in the NHL in 1995, Kariya became a household name in the hockey world. Few could more appropriately represent Disney’s Mighty Ducks of Anaheim than the studious, gentlemanly Paul Kariya — he won the Lady Byng Trophy twice in his first three seasons and was a popular candidate throughout his career.
He was also one of the most prolific scorers of the late-1990s, ranking sixth in total points and fourth in points per game after only Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and Eric Lindros between 1995-96 and 1999-00. At the age of 22, he became the Hart Trophy runner-up, ranking ahead of Lemieux and only behind Dominik Hasek in terms of votes.
At his peak, he was one of the sport’s most exhilarating players. He spent his best years in the Dead Puck Era, a time when size, physicality, obstruction and defensive systems — the trap, for instance — hampered speed and offense. During this time, a significant contingent of hockey journalists considered him to be the most exciting player in the league.
The Toronto Star’s Steve Simmons wrote, “Kariya is the most exciting player in hockey. Period” (Steve Simmons, Toronto Star, 20 Oct 1997). Hockey journalist Jim Jamieson expressed similar thoughts about the “league’s most exciting player” (Jim Jamieson, The Province, 16 Jan 1998).
“Kariya is one of the NHL’s smallest players at an exaggerated 5-11 and 175 pounds, but is the most artistic and imaginative skater since Gretzky entered the league.” - Ken Warren, journalist, The Ottawa Citizen, March 3, 1997
Likewise, in 1997, then-new Mighty Ducks coach Pierre Page called Kariya “the most exciting player since [Guy] Lafleur. The way he plays at such top speed, the way he works... Gretzky was so smart, Kariya is so intense” (Jim Matheson, Edmonton Journal, 1997).
Many fans felt that Pavel Bure was the game’s most exciting player. The Gazette’s Red Fisher, for example, expressed this sentiment both in 1994 and 2000 when he was at the center of the hockey world’s attention: “If Bure is not the most exciting as well as the most valuable player in the league, who is? Nobody is as quick, nobody scores as many big goals, nobody contributes as much to his team’s success” (“By The Boards,” Star Phoenix, 7 Feb 2000).
Paul Kariya was one of the few — Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek were others — who could challenge Bure’s status.
”The thing is, this foot is so messed up now... I sprained my right ankle my first year, and it’s never recovered. This is basically just spraining my ankle again, because I can’t use it... You keep immobilizing it, and it just keeps stiffening up... It’ll never get back to the way it should be.” - Paul Kariya, December 2000 (“Kariya’s Foot,” Calgary Herald, 24 Dec 2000).
In spite of this, he tallied 402 goals and 989 points in 989 career NHL games. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2017 and his #9 was retired by the Anaheim Ducks in 2018 — two long-overdue honors.
Canucks fans had the brief pleasure of seeing the name Kariya sewn on to the back of a Vancouver sweater during the dawn of the West Coast Express era. It was not Paul in that sweater, but his younger brother Steve, whose journey to the NHL was made more difficult by the fact that he was five-foot-seven-inches tall in a league that favored taller, stronger players.
”If he was 5-foot-10 or 5-foot-11, he’d be an outstanding prospect. He does all the things you’d want him to do. He goes into traffic. He goes to the net... Is he a lock? No. But we think he has a chance. It’s a lot to ask to ask him to come in and make the team (at training camp). But he’ll do everything he can to improve. He has certain things that excite you.” - Dave Nonis, Canucks assistant general manager, April 1999 (Terry Bell, The Province, 18 Apr 1999).
At the 2000 NHL All-Star Game, ESPN broadcaster Darren Pang asked Paul, on behalf of a fan, if he had thought about wanting to play with his brother. As this took place, the Bure brothers, Pavel and Valeri, were in the midst of an historic performance that would crown them the highest-scoring brother combination in All-Star Game history.
Darren Pang: “Does watching the Bure brothers play make you want to play with your brother Steve, who plays in Vancouver?”
Paul Kariya: “That would be fantastic. I’ve never gotten a chance to play with him at any point in our careers, so that would be great.”
Whether or not Paul’s response was in jest, Canucks fans could not help but wonder. Steve signed in Vancouver as a free agent, but the opportunity never arose for Paul to represent his hometown. Ultimately, Steve could not find a role with the Canucks despite his best efforts.
Paul’s lengthy holdouts in the autumns of 1994 and 1997 could have been such opportunities to inquire about a trade. Pavel Bure had spent years waiting to be traded away from Vancouver due to his disputes and frustrations with the Canucks’ management team. His trade request became public knowledge in late August 1997. At the time, the Canucks were shopping Alexander Mogilny, who was involved in a contract dispute, like Kariya, to start the 1997-98 season.
One of the main factors that prevented the acquisition of Kariya was simply the price tag. He was an expensive player, signing a two-year, $14 million contract after his lengthy holdout with the Mighty Ducks in December 1997. Bure, in comparison, signed a five-year, $22.5 million contract in 1994 — significantly less per year than his counterpart. The Canucks could not afford Kariya.
One has to wonder whether they could have retained Bure either, as his new deal with the Panthers in 1999 was a $47.5 million contract over five seasons. The Canucks were in a state of financial crisis in the late 1990s. On the March 4, 2020 episode of the Iron Mike Keenan Podcast, the eponymous coach stated that the Panthers were required to trade Bure in 2002 for financial reasons.
Superstar salaries increased rapidly at that time and the prospect of acquiring Kariya or any other elite player, for that matter, was merely a fantasy.
It was a fantasy shared by many:
“Last month, we asked you to respond to these questions: Should the Canucks trade Bure and who should they get in return?... The responses were interesting, to say the least. According to some, the Canucks should simply deal Bure “straight up” for (pick one): Joe Sakic, Brett Hull, Dominik Hasek, Steve Yzerman, Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya or Teemu Selanne. Or, and this is my particular fantasy favorite, they should trade Bure for Kariya and Selanne.” - Jeff Rudd, journalist, Victoria Times-Colonist, 4 Nov 1998
“... Contrary to what some callers to Dan Russell’s Sportstalk think, you can’t trade Alex Mogilny for Paul Kariya or Mark Messier for Joe Sakic.” - Gary Mason, journalist, The Vancouver Sun, 23 Feb 1999
Brian Burke once attempted to acquire Paul in the summer of 2003 when both he and Selanne were free agents. Burke acknowledged that the Canucks did not possess the funds to acquire both players (Terry Bell, The Province, 4 July 2003). They chose to join the Colorado Avalanche on one-year contracts instead. Kariya, in particular, signed a one-year, $1.2 million deal so that he could qualify as a Group 5 unrestricted free agent. To meet the requirements, he needed to be a 10-year NHL veteran making less than the league-average salary of $1.79 million (“Kariya, Selanne,” Alberni Valley Times, 4 July 2003).
Canucks assistant general manager Steve Tambellini admitted in 2004 that the team had contacted Kariya’s agent Don Baizley during that year’s off-season as well. One unnamed general manager even stated his belief that Kariya would sign with Vancouver (Tony Gallagher, The Province, 24 Aug 2004). The scoring star from North Vancouver signed with Nashville instead just prior to the 2004-05 lockout’s conclusion, agreeing to a two-year, $9 million deal. He then joined the St. Louis Blues in 2007 for $18 million over three years. He retired in 2010.
Alas, the Canucks were never able to acquire Paul Kariya. Thus, he became just another of the many local talents who blossomed for an opponent.
Some fans still think about it.
I am @CambieKev on Twitter.