The traditional NHL rookie initiation has gone uptown in the past decade, the 29¢ disposable razor and $1.79 can of Foamy having yielded to the $10,000 tab for a team dinner. While rookies were once expected to give the shirts off their backs and submit to a full-body shave, these days first-year men give the shirts off their backs so veterans can uncork wines priced as high as your mortgage payment. "I've heard about them opening bottles so expensive it leaves the rookies in awe," says Vancouver Canucks first-year left wing Peter Schaefer. In fact Schaefer, one of three rookies on the Canucks who would split the tab for their team's gustatory hazing, carried two credit cards on a road trip last month in anticipation of the dinner.
This year's rookies are everywhere you want to be in the NHL. They're on No. 1 power-play and penalty-killing units (Schaefer); on the first line (Schaefer's teammate Steve Kariya); and on the ice for 21 minutes a game (San Jose Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart). They're at the top of the stat sheet (center Scott Gomez of the New Jersey Devils, who through Sunday led his team in scoring), and they're starting in goal (Martin Biron of the Buffalo Sabres).
"I can't remember so many good rookies at one time," says Phoenix Coyotes general manager Bobby Smith. "When we had the 20-year-old draft"—before 1979 no player younger than 20 was eligible to be drafted—"there were more players coming in who'd be among a team's top four defensemen and top six forwards, but that was how long ago? This year's group has a number of guys who will be playing a long, long time. I read the other day that so-and-so, I forget who, was a lock for the Calder Trophy [as the league's best rookie]. I remember thinking, Gee, at least a half-dozen guys might be ahead of him."
There isn't an all-world player in the group, no Raymond Bourque (a first-team All-Star as a rookie in 1979-80) or Teemu Selanne (who tied for the NHL goal-scoring lead in 1992-93 with 76, a rookie record), although Stuart "is going to be a stud," says Vancouver general manager Brian Burke. Many of these players have emerged from the strong 1998 draft—12 of the 27 first-round picks that year are now NHL regulars—but their arrival has more to do with serendipity than breakthroughs in player development. They're the precocious children of opportunity, joining a booming job market that because of expansion has added roughly 50 spots in the past two seasons and will add about 50 more next year.
More significant, the rookies are beneficiaries of the league's new economic climate: They come cheap. With the average payroll around $32 million—up 430% in the past decade—cost-conscious teams are trying to fill rosters with homegrown prospects. "Look at Jochen Hecht," St. Louis Blues general manager Larry Pleau says of his first-year left wing. "We had him in the minors most of last season, and we brought him up for five playoff games and he looked good. Not long ago we would have kept him in the minors another half season. But like any business we have a budget, so we're giving rookies a look. You live with kids, even if they make mistakes. A guy making $1.2 million might get six goals and check a little. A rookie might do better right now, and you know he'll be better down the road man the guy making $1.2 million."
Hecht has deceptive speed and a knack for coming up with loose pucks, and he earns a modest $592,500. The bargain of the first-year group is Schaefer, who on Sept. 14 signed a two-year, $850,000 deal and through Sunday was second among rookies with 14 points and tied for the NHL lead with two short-handed goals. "It's not that you want the cheap rookie as much as some veterans are pricing themselves out of the game," Burke says. "You wouldn't necessarily mind paying $800,000 in that roster spot instead of $400,000, but you can't get that veteran guy for $800,000 because he wants $1.2 million. So you say, O.K., let's see what the $400,000 guy can do. In our case, we're rebuilding. We'd be looking at rookies anyway."
Vancouver kept a close eye on Kariya, and not merely because at 5'6" and 165 pounds he can get lost in a crowd. There are advantages to being a hockey munchkin—he's closer to the puck, harder to check cleanly and makes a superb Minime, as Kariya did at the Canucks' Halloween party—but it can lead to verbal abuse. As Vancouver and the New York Rangers were aligning for a face-off on Kariya's first NHL shift on Oct. 2, New York's Theo Fleury, who's only 5'6" himself, asked Canucks center Andrew Cassels, "Hey, who's the midget on your line?"
"People think a player my size would be neutralized right away," says the 21-year-old Kariya. "One NHL scout told my coach at Maine [Shawn Walsh] that I'd never play in this league, although if I were 5'10" or 5'11" like my brother [Anaheim Mighty Ducks star Paul] I'd be an excellent prospect. I never understood what four inches has to do with hockey. Would those extra inches make me shoot the puck harder? Would they make me think better?"
At the urging of Dave Nonis, Vancouver's director of hockey operations and a Maine alumnus, Burke agreed to give the un-drafted Kariya a chance, signing him last April to a three-year, $1.7 million contract. "A couple of teams might have been interested in Steve as a novelty," Burke says. "We were interested in him as a player." These days Kariya sleeps in his old room in his parents' house in North Vancouver, his Wayne Gretzky posters still on the wall.
Steve isn't as gifted as his 25-year-old brother Paul, who when he was growing up was always jetting off to represent Canada in some tournament while Steve didn't make it past the first round of tryouts for the national under-17 team, but he has similar warp speed and hockey sense. Unlike Paul, who knows how to evade a check, Steve seems to troll for contact and possesses a Wile E. Coyote ability to bounce up after getting creamed. "First shift in training camp Todd [Bertuzzi, a 6'3", 235-pound center] runs over him like a freight train," says Alexander Mogilny, who plays right wing on the same line as Kariya. "I thought he was dead, but he jumped up and kept playing. I didn't think much about him at first, but you keep watching and it hits you that he's pretty good."