"It doesn't take a trained eye to pick out Paul Kariya on the ice," Duck coach Ron Wilson says. "He's very serious about what he docs. He's always thinking. I took him with me last week to watch one of my daughters play freshman basketball, and within 10 minutes he had the whole game figured out. He's saying, 'Why don't they force that girl left? Don't they see she can't dribble with her left hand?' "
Selected in 1993 with the expansion Ducks' first entry-draft pick—fourth pick overall that year—he is the foundation of what they hope their hockey team will become. Their inaugural season a year ago brought a surprising 33 wins, but those were grim, defensive-minded wins. The idea was to stop the other team first, stop and stop and stop, then hope for the other team to make a mistake and open a scoring opportunity. The action around the on-ramps to the five nearby freeways after games was more exciting most nights than the action on the Pond during the games.
Kariya could change all that. Or at least start to. In his one full season at the University of Maine, in '92-93, he led the Black Bears to the national championship and was the first freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award as top college hockey player in the U.S. In the 1994 Olympics at Lillehammer he was the heart of the Canadian team that won the silver medal, missing the gold when he failed to score in a shoot-out in the finals against Sweden. In the world championships two months later he was the youngest player on a gold-medal-winning Canadian team loaded with NHL veterans, and he was the team's leading scorer.
Plus, well, he's Disney. Total Disney. Not since Gepetto made his marionette walk and talk has the fantasy corporation drawn up a more marketable, easy-to-like subject. All he has to do now is continue scoring goals. Through Sunday he was tied for the NHL rookie scoring lead with four goals and three assists.
"You know, I played against him when he was about 15 or 16 years old," Wilson says. "I was an assistant coach in Vancouver, and I played in one of those charity games. He was on the other side, this little kid just whirling around with those 360's, just doing all this fancy stuff, going like crazy. I remember the guys in the locker room were laughing about him. We just wanted to play the game and have a few beers afterward, and here was this serious kid doing all these Gretzky moves on us."
The oldest son of Vancouver-area schoolteachers, Kariya is half Japanese but wary about being labeled anything except maybe Canadian and human. He admits he grew up with Gretzky on his mind. He watched Gretzky games and instructional tapes. He tried Gretzky moves. Wasn't Gretzky the best? Why not try to do what he did?
"I got into visualization early," Kariya says. "I think the mind is the most important part of all sports. Where I lived in Vancouver, we didn't get ice time all that much, so I'd watch tapes and think about what I was going to do. I still do that. You watch and think. You learn by osmosis."
Kariya's visualizations about sport extend into life. What did he visualize doing with his life? Just what he eventually did. He wanted to play Junior A hockey, which he did, living with a family in Penticton, B.C., finishing as the Junior A Player of the Year in 1992. He wanted to go to college in the U.S., in the East. He was accepted at Boston University, Harvard and Maine. He wanted to play in the Olympics, the world championships, the NHL. Done. He worked with a single-mindedness that many 50-year-olds still haven't found.
"A lot of it has to come from his family," Wilson says. "Jack Ferreira and I went up there to open the negotiations, to offer this kid who was 18 at the time millions of dollars. We sat down for dinner. At the end, Paul's mother, Sharon, said, 'Paul, clear the dishes,' and away he went, no harrumphs, nothing."
"We brought along all the Anaheim Ducks shirts and hats and stuff we could find," Ferreira says. "We put them on a couch. The younger kids—he has two brothers and two sisters—were looking at it all, but no one made a move. The pile just sat there until after dinner when the parents said it was all right to inspect the things we brought."