For four of the five players being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame tonight, the honor will represent the culmination of careers that were both remarkably lengthy and ended on an equally remarkable high. Think about it. Dave Andreychuk retired at the age of 42, with his last act as an NHL player holding the Stanley Cup over his head. Mark Recchi was a year older when he won his last Cup with Boston. Teemu Selanne retired at 43, just months after winning a bronze medal and being named MVP at the 2014 Olympics. Danielle Goyette hung her equipment bag up at 41 after winning the 2007 World Women’s Championship and finishing the tournament with six goals and 11 points in just five games.
Then there’s Paul Kariya. His NHL career ended when he was 35, after getting drilled in the head by a Patrick Kaleta elbow.
There is no wondering with the other four. All of them left the game on their own terms with nothing left to give. With Kariya, though, we’re left to wonder what might have been, on a number of fronts.
What if Paul Kariya had played in an era when the NHL took concussions more seriously? What if he had played at a time when he could have exploited his immense speed and skill to the fullest instead of playing during the Dead Puck Era™ when teams were encouraged to hook and hold in order to limit the effectiveness of star players? What if Kariya was in the NHL at a time when Rule 48 was in full effect, when Gary Suter would have received much more than the joke of a four-game sentence he got for viciously crosschecking Kariya and knocking him out of the 1998 Olympics?
Instead of being a second-tier Hall of Famer – someone who doesn’t get in until several years after which they are eligible and whose merits as a Hall of Famer can be debated – perhaps he’s a slam dunk. Or he might even still be playing. Kariya is 43 years old, about as old as the other members of this year’s Hall of Fame class were when they retired. If you’ve seen footage of Kariya on his surfboard, you can clearly tell he’s a man in tune with his body who takes very, very good care of himself. There’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have been one of those players who would have continued to do that to maximize his career. With his smarts and skill, perhaps Kariya could have reinvented himself in the later years of his career and become a defensive specialist, which might have earned him a Selke Trophy or two and added to his Hall of Fame resume.
Instead of being subjected to six concussions over the course of his career, there’s a chance that number could have been cut in half, or perhaps eliminated altogether. If Kariya plays on the 1998 Olympic team, maybe Canada gets the goal it needed in regulation or overtime or Kariya solves Dominik Hasek in the shootout and Canada goes on to win the semifinal and plays Russia for the gold medal.
To be sure, Kariya would have been far more productive than a point-per-game player, something that was pretty remarkable in and of itself. The bulk of Kariya’s career was played at a time when the NHL was barely producing five goals a game, and by the time the NHL came back from the lockout to a new brand of hockey in 2005-06, most of the damage had already been done. The website hockeyreference.com adjusts players’ scoring totals to the era in which they played and they have Kariya at 1,078 points, 89 more than his actual total of 989. During the prime years of his career, the ones that preceded the Scott Stevens headshot during the 2003 Stanley Cup final, Kariya had 649 points in 606 career games. If you adjust for the era, he had the equivalent of 745 points.
In 2006 when Canada was picking its team for the Olympics, Kariya was in the midst of a season in which he would score 31 goals and 85 points for the Nashville Predators. To get an indication of what an accomplishment that was, consider that he finished 17 points ahead of the next highest-scoring teammate, Steve Sullivan. Only four players on Canada’s team – Dany Heatley, Brad Richards, Joe Sakic and Joe Thornton – had more points that season than Kariya did. When the team was selected and Kariya was left off, GM Wayne Gretzky said, “Paul is a great player, but at some point you have to have a cutoff.”
Canada finished the tournament with just 15 goals in six games and no player on the team had more than two. Canada failed to score in a 2-0 loss to Russia in the quarterfinal game. Would things have been different with Kariya and a rookie by the name of Sidney Crosby – who was in the midst of a 102-point season – in Turin?
Those are some of the things we’re left to wonder when it comes to Kariya’s career, one that had no Stanley Cups and two Lady Byng Trophies. But you’d have to think that if Kariya had played in a more enlightened NHL and one more suited to his skill set, there’d be absolutely no debate about his place in the game or in the Hall of Fame.