Paul Kariya flashed over the blue line, faked a wrist shot from the left face-off circle and pulled the puck wide as Philadelphia Flyers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck bit like a cop on a doughnut. Now all Kariya had to do to dot the i after his signature move was lift the puck into the gaping net. Instead he bungled the shot, dribbling the puck into Vanbiesbrouck's outstretched stick. Three hours later in the churchlike silence of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' locker room, Kariya ticked off everything in the game he would like to take back: that flip shot in the first minute, a money-in-the-bank two-on-one with linemate Teemu Selanne and a shot from the slot that he practically fanned on. Said Kariya, who scored Anaheim's only goal in the 4-1 loss in Philadelphia on Sunday, "The timing's just not there."
For Kariya, who was playing in just his second game since suffering a concussion on Feb. 1, this is true. For the NHL, Kariya's fresh start is perfect timing.
This is our Kariya Theory: Almost everything that went wrong with the NHL in 1997-98 can be linked to his absences. Follow the breadcrumbs. Kariya's two-month holdout at the start of the season had a paralyzing effect not only on Disney's Ducks but also on the entire league. At 23 Kariya was a crowd-pleasing star who over the previous two seasons had had the highest points-per-game average, 1.43, in the NHL. Kariya eventually signed a two-year, $14 million contract but then played only 22 games before Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Gary Suter crosschecked him in the jaw after Kariya had scored a goal. With scoring already plummeting leaguewide, Suter in one act of rank idiocy—he wound up with a four-game suspension—shelved the NHL's most potent offensive player for the rest of the season.
More significant, Kariya's absence derailed the league's most ambitious and admirable project—participation in the Olympic Games. As a third-generation Canadian with ancestral ties to Japan and as one of the world's most exciting players, Kariya would have been the star attraction at Nagano. He was the one young Canadian forward with the purportedly European attributes of speed and puck skills, and he would have been dancing on the big Olympic ice before adoring crowds. Kariya also would have been one of Canada's five players in the semifinal shoot-out against Czech goalie Dominik Hasek, who stoned the Canadians and denied them a shot at the gold medal. After Canada returned home empty-handed, a dishwater-gray mood tailed the NHL clear through the Stanley Cup.
Taking Kariya out of the 1997-98 season was akin to taking George Bailey out of It's a Wonderful Life. "Go ahead," Kariya says with a laugh when the theory is presented. "Blame me."
He is different now, eight months after getting that facial. He smiles easily. He is more engaging. He is as serious as ever about his job—over the summer Kariya hired a cook to prepare nutritious meals, dropping $2,100 on top-of-the-line cookware—but he emits a sense of playfulness that is charming. "I feel a little more relaxed now," Kariya said last Friday, the day before the Ducks lost their opener to the Washington Capitals 1-0. "I don't get agitated at the little things that used to bother me. If the bus is waiting and I can't get my [postpractice] workout in, I find a way around it. I'm not so concerned about being in a regimen. Why? I don't know. I guess it's that clich�—if you don't have your health, you have nothing."
If there was one degree of separation between Kariya and NHL success last season, there were several degrees of separation between Kariya and his senses after the concussion. At first Kariya was optimistic that he would sweep out the cobwebs and jet to Nagano one week later. He hadn't lost consciousness on the hit, unlike the three other times he had suffered concussions, and in previous instances Kariya's head always had cleared by the next morning. But this time symptoms of postconcussion syndrome lingered. He would retrieve messages from his answering machine and moments later not have a clue who had called. His head throbbed, and the fog was not lifting.
The worst times were at night. "There weren't a lot of positive images of me holding up the Stanley Cup, I'll tell you that," Kariya says of his thoughts. He was young, wealthy and clever, yet all he could think of as he lay in bed was a dim future. "I was well-rounded, I'd been to college. It wasn't that I couldn't do anything else," he says. "I wanted to stay in sports, but if I couldn't think, how was I going to play?"
Late last season Kariya took a call from New York Rangers center Pat LaFontaine, who had himself struggled with postconcussion syndrome. (He would be forced to retire after '97-98 as a result.) Kariya also heard from Flyers captain Eric Lindros, who sustained a serious concussion last year and whose brother Brett's career was prematurely ended by concussions. At Eric's suggestion, Kariya tried acupuncture in late April. The logy feeling quickly began to vanish. For a player whose approach to hockey is almost scientific, Kariya showed little curiosity about the physiology of concussions. He didn't want to know about the shearing of the axons that had short-circuited his brain and his season. After he resumed training on May 10, he only wanted to know what it would take to get ready to play again.
Kariya, who was cleared to play in August, returned with an additional one-quarter inch of foam padding in his helmet and a tighter chin strap to prevent the headgear from flying off. He also is using a mouth guard, a device that absorbs and diffuses the force from blows to the jaw. Kariya has even more protection: the promise by an anxious league to levy stiff suspensions on headhunters; his own elbows and stick, both of which he says he now won't hesitate to use; and a 6'6", 230-pound bodyguard named Stu Grimson, a.k.a. the Grim Reaper. Grimson, in his second tour of duty with Anaheim, is an enforcer who won't play on a line with the 5'11", 180-pound left wing and can't prevent every hit on the Ducks' star but who can make Kariya's life marginally easier. After Capitals tough-guy Craig Berube gave Kariya a mild bump in the second period last Saturday, Grimson sought out Berube, dropped his gloves on the ensuing face-off and duked it out. "[The hit] was hard enough to elicit a response," Grimson says. "Why not send a message early? Not so much for the league as for the kid, that I'm going to do my best to make sure he's allowed to play his game."