The best athlete to ever wear the blue and white of the University of Maine retired on Wednesday. The victim of too many blows to the head resulting in too many concussions, Paul Kariya and his doctor decided it’s not worth risking his long term health to continue to play hockey.

When it comes time to rank the Black Bears based on their college and professional careers, Kariya has to be at the top of every list. No matter who you put in second place: Bill Swift, Mike Bordick, Stephen Cooper, Eric Weinrich, Keith Carney, Cindy Blodgett, to name a few candidates, that person will look up and see Kariya on the horizon, in first place by a large margin.

Kariya was at Maine for just three semesters, not even a season and a half of hockey, but what he managed to cram into that short period was magnificent. Kariya played 51 games for the Black Bears, and he scored 124 points.

As a freshman in 1992-93, Kariya was the best player on arguably the best college hockey team of all time. Maine went 41-1-2 that season. Kariya scored 25 goals and 75 assists for an even 100 points, and became the first (and so far, only) freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player.

Maine scored 292 goals that season, still an NCAA Division I record, and won its first national championship. Playing an instrumental role in bringing that trophy to Orono is reason enough to put Kariya at the top of any best of Maine athletes list.

As flashy as Kariya was on the ice, off the ice he was as exciting as the phone book. Kariya went to class, not bars. Coach Shawn Walsh never had to worry about any scandal involving Kariya, because it’s close to impossible to find trouble with your nose buried in a book in your dorm room.

We knew when Kariya was selected with the fourth pick of the 1993 NHL draft by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, his days in Orono were numbered. Heck, that he came back and played a dozen games at the start of the 1993-94 season before joining the Canadian Olympic team was a bonus.

We followed his NHL career with zeal. While most Black Bears who go on to professional hockey spend some time toiling in the minors, Kariya was an immediate contributor to the Ducks. He scored 108 points in 1995-96, 99 points the next season, and 101 in 1998-99.

We watched him win two Lady Byng Trophies as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player. We wondered if he still juggled, which he did at Maine to work on hand-eye coordination.

We watched him for nine seasons in Anaheim, where, in 2002-03, Kariya and the Ducks came close to winning the Stanley Cup, falling to the New Jersey Devils in seven games in the finals. Kariya then spent a season with the Colorado Avalanche, then two with the Nashville Predators, then three with the St. Louis Blues.

In 989 NHL games, Kariya scored 989 points, and we still wonder, what if? What if injuries hadn’t plagued Kariya throughout his 15 years in the NHL? What if he’d played a full 82 game schedule more than just seven times? Would we be talking about a Hall of Fame career?

We’ll never know. Kariya didn’t play a shift this past season. He couldn’t. The concussions prevented that.

Maine was lucky to see Kariya at the beginning, when he could dazzle us with the spin-o-rama and fed perfect passes to his Black Bear teammates Jim Montgomery and Cal Ingraham.

As sad as the end of Kariya’s career is, remember those days in Orono, and remember the years in the NHL when he was healthy and at the top of his game, when Kariya was one of the best in the league. Remember him as the best athlete the University of Maine has seen.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

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