Paul Kariya: A Perfect Fit
When Predators General Manager David Poile went shopping amid a bumper crop of free agents in early August of this year, he was in no rush. Just as he has used patience, persistence, and conviction to develop the Predators roster primarily through the National Hockey League's annual Entry Draft, he exhibited those same qualities while locating available players that he considered a perfect fit for his team. On Friday, August 5--five days into the search and long after many other GMs had begun their frenzied sprees--Poile's composure paid dividends with the signing of one of the prizes of the field: talented All-Star forward Paul Kariya.
"I think in this process where a lot of guys got signed on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, if we hadn't been consistent with Kariya--if we would have made our offer and demanded Monday, 'Either sign with us or we're moving on,'I don't think that's the way it works with Paul Kariya," Poile said while announcing the acquisition. "I think the fact that we had this four- or five-day relationship allowed him to finally make this decision today."
Once the deal had been struck, one sentiment constantly emanated from an excited Predators front office: the Nashville franchise had found the ideal fit.
Kariya, a rather mild-mannered individual off the ice, has certainly made his mark while playing on it. Averaging more than a point per game since entering the NHL in 1994, the Vancouver, B.C., native has amassed the most points--705 in 657 career contests--among all active players age 31 and younger. A two-time winner of the league's Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for "gentlemanly" on-ice conduct, he has also been tapped for three First Team All-Star selections, two Second Team All-Star nods, and a spot on the 1995 All-Rookie Team. His impressive trophy case features Olympic gold and silver medals, World Championship gold and silver medals, and a World Junior Championship gold, all won with Team Canada. Kariya's intercollegiate play at Maine merited a Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given annually to the top U.S. college player, and helped win the 1993 NCAA National Championship.
"That's a name that even a general sports fan, even if you have no interest in hockey at all but you just watch Sportscenter, you probably have heard of Paul Kariya," said Willy Daunic, co-host of 104.5-FM The Zone's afternoon sports talk show, The Sports Zone. The station--also the new flagship radio broadcaster for the Predators in 2005-06--carried Poile's announcement of the signing live and received lots of listener feedback. "The caller excitement was huge," Daunic added. "Probably the biggest excitement that I've ever seen from our listeners as far as hockey goes."
That public reaction was appropriate given Poile's assessment of the deal. "This is unquestionably the biggest signing in our club's history," said the Predators GM, who, as it turns out, wasn't the only one being judicious en route to the deal. With several other clubs pursuing his services, Kariya diligently did his homework before selecting a final destination. He inquired about every detail of the Predators organization, speaking with Poile, Head Coach Barry Trotz, and center/longtime friend Greg Johnson.
"I talked to [Johnson] for quite a while," Kariya said, "just about Nashville, and just to get some insights into the club and some background stuff that only the players would know about. You can talk to the coaching staff and the general manager most certainly, but you can only talk to players about other things.
"He said, 'You'd love it here if you came.' I think he's excited to take my money in the poker games," Kariya added with a laugh.
Even team owner Craig Leipold placed a call to Kariya in an attempt to tip the balance in the Predators' favor. "We talked about Nashville. We talked about our team. We talked about our culture, and why I thought he fit into our culture," Leipold explained. "We talked about the fact that there's no state income tax in the state of Tennessee. And really, I was trying to sell him. He had 10 teams he was trying to choose from. We knew we wanted him. We just wanted to make sure he wanted us as well."
For Kariya, who dined with Nashville forward Scott Walker upon arriving in town, the Predators' biggest selling point came on the ice. Trotz said that while speaking with Kariya prior to his signing, the four-time winner of the NHL SuperSkills competition's Puck Control Relay event stated how he loved Nashville's style of play and the emphasis on skating and speed. He also believed the Predators were one of the NHL teams best situated for a bright future.
"I was really impressed playing against them, and also watching them during the playoffs," Kariya told gathered media via a conference call. "I think they've got one of the fastest teams in the league. I think they have one of the hardest working teams in the league. They have terrific goaltending, a great work ethic, and I think if they lacked anything it was some scoring punch up front. I looked at that as a big role that I could fill, and I was really excited to come here and do that."
Kariya was the fourth overall pick in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft and spent nine seasons with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. A one-time 50-goal scorer who broke the 100-point barrier twice with the Ducks, he served as team captain for seven seasons and played in seven All-Star games. In 2003, he signed as a free agent with the Colorado Avalanche, departing Anaheim as the franchise's all-time leader in goals, assists, points, game-winning goals, power-play goals, power-play points, shorthanded goals, shorthanded points, and shots on goal. In Colorado, injuries limited him to a relatively subdued 2003-04 by his standards--11 goals and 25 assists in 51 games. Perhaps that's why he wasn't invited to Team Canada's Olympic training camp this past August. He can still make the team, though, and plans to show that he deserves a roster spot.
"Every time you step on the ice you have something to prove," Kariya said shortly after first donning his No. 9 Predators jersey at an Aug. 8 press conference in the Gaylord Entertainment Center. "Especially after the last season that I went through, two years ago in Colorado, and not being invited to the Olympic camp, I've got a lot to prove. I've got to get off to a great start, to start getting that kind of recognition to get invited."
Several NHL rule changes for the 2005-06 season might help Kariya get that quick start. At 5-10 and 176 pounds, he's fast. "The first thing you notice about him is the dynamic speed," Poile said. "It's unbelievable." He's in good company among the Predators, who stand to benefit from offensive-minded rules that have been designed and predicted to accentuate speedy, skilled players. Kariya, in particular, has stated that he is looking forward to a promised crackdown on obstruction violations and the removal of the two-line pass infraction.
"In the past, you had to come inside the red line to get a breakaway pass or get a quick transition play," Kariya said. "Now you can be at the [opposing] blue line to get that pass. Guys like [defensemen Marek] Zidlicky and [Kimmo] Timonen on the back end, they can see the game really well and make that long pass. I think you're going to see a lot of two-on-ones and breakaway chances, and that's the strength of my game."
Kariya's quickness should draw plenty of penalties too, and his scoring touch will bring added punch to a power play that found success late in the 2003-04 season. "For [opposing] teams, that's going to be one of their scouting reports: to stay out of the box because this team could hurt you on the power play," said Predators forward Steve Sullivan.
Trotz sees Kariya's talents paying dividends in other game situations as well. "Even on the penalty kill, because of his speed, we can put a lot of pressure on teams," Trotz said. "Obviously we can add his offense in the shootout if we are in that situation, and with four-on-four I think he's going to be dynamic, with the speed that he has combined with very good puck-moving defensemen that we have."
Characterized by Poile as a physical fitness nut, Kariya capitalizes on his time off the ice. His dedication to exercise and preparedness is described as legendary, as evidenced by four seasons in which he appeared in all 82 contests. More recently, he used the down-time during the cancelled 2004-05 season to completely recover from and rehabilitate any nagging injuries.
"This is the best I've felt physically maybe ever in my career," Kariya said. "I never wanted to take a year off of hockey, but in retrospect I think it was one of the best things to happen to me."
Another off-ice passion to which he devotes his time is children's charities. "It's something that is near my heart, and something I've always been a part of," he said. "Basically from day one when I was brought into the NHL, I've visited children's hospitals. It's something that I enjoy doing and something I'll continue to do here."
For the Predators, it's all part of the "fit." When Poile and his staff targeted free agents to pursue, they were looking for more than a gifted offensive talent. They were seeking an individual who personified key cornerstones of the Predators organization--dedication, class, selflessness, professionalism.
"You look at a guy like Paul Kariya--not only is he a tremendous individual as a player, and brings a great skill set, but you look at the person," said Trotz. For Kariya, who has a large family in Vancouver, his competitive nature is apparently genetic: one sister, Noriko, is a hockey player-turned-professional boxer, and brothers Martin and Steve play pro hockey too.
"This guy is a very smart, thorough, professional athlete," Trotz continued. "He won the MAC Award [Most Assists for Children] in 2002 at the All-Star Game [for his work] with charities for children. This guy is what we've tried to cultivate in Nashville--that type of individual that fits into our culture."
The bonus is that the Predators seem an ideal match for Kariya as well. It's a win-win scenario with the potential to revolutionize Middle Tennessee's relationship with the sport of ice hockey.
"I think it's a terrific hockey market," said Kariya, whose girlfriend, Valerie, is a country music fan. "Anytime I've played in Nashville in the past, the atmosphere around the rink is terrific. It's electric. And when that rink is full, it's one of the most stunning places to play."
For Leipold, though, Kariya's decision is much, much more than an endorsement of the city.
"His willingness to choose us really indicates that he believes that we can win," Leipold said. "I think that's why he's here."