Paul Kariya was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame Monday, and I’m sure it doesn’t strike the personal chord for me that it does for others.

I didn’t go to the University of Maine in the 1990s, so I wasn’t in the stands at Alfond Arena to either witness Kariya shatter the world of college hockey or revel in the legend he had already established. I wasn’t one of the kids growing up in Maine during his playing days, hearing about this prodigy playing up in Orono that fans were flocking to see. I wasn’t a hockey fan in 1994, so I wasn’t around to watch a player heralded as a star in the making begin a hyped NHL career.

But I still took a measure of pride in the news. I became a hockey fan in the late 1990s, and it didn’t take long for Kariya to become my favorite player.

For me, Kariya’s style was perfect, a thing of beauty. I didn’t develop a fondness for hockey based on open-ice hits and checks along the boards, and the fights that my friends liked to talk about struck me as boring, a distraction from what I had come to love about the sport. I liked speed, agility and skill. I liked watching players fly down the ice and take the puck into the offensive zone, dangle the puck in front of the crease, or rip a hard shot through traffic for a goal.

Then I saw Kariya play, and I saw all of my favorite elements to the game manifested in one player. He was a blur on the ice, elegant and shifty on his skates and artful with the puck. He could set up goals with passes to open players I didn’t even see, or score them himself with a hard, accurate shot that he could launch with just a sliver of space. He was small, too, and there was something refreshing about seeing some of the most sparkling play in a hard, tough, physical league come from a player who stood barely up to the shoulder of some of the defenders he’d zip past.

I’ve been a Philadelphia Flyers fan since I started following the sport, but Kariya was my favorite player the way basketball fans of all teams idolized Michael Jordan, or the way baseball fans universally loved Ken Griffey Jr. In video games, my first move was always to trade for Kariya. Even his name had a ring to it; “Paul Kariya” seemed drawn up for hockey highlights, and I liked hearing it for the same reason ESPN’s Gary Thorne must have loved yelling it into the microphone.

My favorite moment of Kariya’s was everyone else’s. In 2003, Anaheim met New Jersey in the Stanley Cup Finals, and Kariya had the poor luck of winding up in the path of brutish Devils defenseman Scott Stevens. Stevens was a destroyer, a truck on skates who had already earned my disdain for wiping out Eric Lindros with a hit three years prior that ended the superstar’s days as a Flyer. This time, it was Kariya who strayed toward Stevens, and it was Kariya who ended up lying motionless on the ice, his eyes vacant, the breath collecting on his visor the only sign of life.

If you know the play, you know the ending. After absorbing the hit that had knocked out the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Lindros, the 5-10, 185-pound Kariya was back before the end of the period. Minutes later, he took the puck in the neutral zone, flew down the left side and crossed into the neutral zone.

“Kariya, the fans want one…” Thorne called, sensing the moment.

Given space, he didn’t hesitate. Kariya ripped a shot, an absolute rocket, with such speed that Martin Brodeur, the preeminent goalie of the day, didn’t have a chance. You could hear the sound of the puck slamming into the top of the cage on the broadcast, moments before the roar of the crowd and the emotion of Thorne, an Old Town native and Maine alum, took over.

“Score! Off the floor, on the board! Paul Kariya!”

I remember watching that play in our basement, but I can’t remember if I was ecstatic or stunned. Players didn’t come back from Stevens’s hits; he was the hardest of hockey’s tough guys. It was like watching a running back shake off a direct hit from Ray Lewis, or bounce back from taking Mike Tyson’s hardest hook. But that was Kariya. The world knew he was gifted, and then it saw he was tough.

It wasn’t until getting to college that I learned what Kariya had done at Maine. How he had helped make the state a hockey hotbed by putting up baffling numbers, and how, as a freshman on the greatest team in the sport’s history, he was hardly challenged at what’s supposed to be the highest level of amateur hockey in North America. Kariya won the Hobey Baker Award that year with 100 points in 39 games. Those types of numbers today are absurd, and just as golf pundits bristle at the dubbing of another Tiger Woods, college hockey coaches who saw him are just as reluctant to label a talented player as another Kariya.

And for the fans who saw him, particularly at Orono, Kariya’s enshrinement has a personal touch. For a while, he was theirs — a prodigious talent who brought the attention of an entire sport to their community. So, no, I can’t relate to that feeling.

But I did see my favorite player get into the Hall of Fame. For me, that seems close enough.

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.