It's that time again. It's the weekend the festivities begin for this year's Hockey Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies. This time around, the Nashville Predators' schedule doesn't put them in Toronto, but one of the inductees will have many of us there in spirit. Paul Kariya is that man.
Kariya was ahead of his time in many ways. Not as small as today's Johnny Gaudreau, but not much bigger. Kariya admitted as much in a video prior to his going into the Hall (watch here).
He and Teemu Selanne terrorized the league after Selanne was traded to the Ducks in February of 1996. In the full seasons of 1996 through 2000, Selanne scored 183 goals and Kariya (who missed 60 games due to injury one season) tallied 142. They did it while skating at warp speed, a harbinger of the way the game is today. It is only fitting that the two of them are part of the same class being honored. As a matter of fact, Kariya first found out about it in a phone call from Teemu:
In 2007, Terry Crisp sat down with both of them to take us inside the Kariya-Selanne chemistry:
Anaheim broke up the tandem, though. They traded Selanne up the coast to San Jose at the deadline in 2001. They were back together in 2003-04, signing as free agents with Colorado.
Following that season was the NHL lockout, as the league shut down for all of what was 2004-05. When the lockout was over, in July of 2005, Selanne went back to Anaheim. Kariya did not - and that helped change the fortunes of a certain "non-traditional hockey market."
Kariya's decision to sign with Nashville was a highly-significant move in the organization's history. As the NHL was emerging from that lockout, I was working on a podcast ("This Week at the Yard") that covered baseball's minor leagues. I had broadcast baseball daily from 1981 through 1995, and part-time thereafter.
On Aug. 5, I was at Frontier Field in Rochester, New York, doing some on-the-spot recording for the podcast. One of my interviews was with a man who now is a member of the World Champion Houston Astros, Francisco Liliana:
While I was recording that interview prior to a Red Wings - Buffalo Bisons' game, my cell phone was constantly buzzing. When finally I was able to I answer it, I heard the news: Paul Kariya, scorer of 336 NHL goals in 10 seasons with Anaheim and Colorado to that point, was signing a free-agent deal with the Predators. I was flabbergasted, a blue-chipper had chosen Nashville!
Going into that lockout, the Predators had made the playoffs for the first time, enjoying a 91-point season, then an unforgettable six-game series with their big brothers in Detroit.
Little did they know what was in store for them after this move!
The dividends became evident almost immediately:
Kariya was an outstanding player, always a threat with whomever he was teamed. But he also was one of the NHL's standouts in new part of the game: the shootout. That was part of the new rules that came about following the lost season. In his first season in Nashville, he converted 5-of-7 shootout attempts. The next season, he made 7-of-11.
With Kariya and 2004 acquisition Steve Sullivan (each with 31 goals and making magic on the power play) leading the way, the team averaged more than three goals per game for the first time and was seventh in the NHL in goals-against. Scott Hartnell (25), Yanic Perreault (22) and Martin Erat (20) added to the attack. Kariya became the first (and to this point, only Predator) to average more than a point-per-game (85 points in 82 games) over the course of a full schedule.
That team compiled 106 points, the sixth-best record in the whole League. The following year, with the additions of J.P. Dumont, Jason Arnott, Alex Radulov, and the late addition of another Hall-of-Famer, Peter Forsberg, won a franchise-record 51 games and 110 points. I remember how excited Kariya was to be reunited with Forsberg. What a combination they were:
Unfortunately, they were matched in Round One with San Jose and fell in five games.
Though an ownership change meant significant roster turnover in the summer of 2007, and Kariya was not offered another contract, he enjoyed his time with the Preds and wanted to stay in the Music City.
Kariya's signing had changed the perception of fans, executives and media around the National Hockey League that Nashville was serious about hockey. That has been demonstrated time and time again the past four seasons.
Now, Kariya's career (402g-587a-989pts, 989 gp) will be properly celebrated, along with that of his long-time running mate in Anaheim (and Colorado), Teemu Selanne. Now everyone realizes the stellar company that includes Kariya:
We have heard it so many times around Bridgestone Arena in another context, so how about another: "Thank you, Paul!"