He has been called the Wayne Gretzky of college hockey. While Paul Kariya (ka-REE-ya), a freshman at Maine, may not be quite the stickhandling genius Gretzky was at 18, there are enough similarities between the two to justify the comparison. Bent over at the waist, deceptively fast, Kariya skates like the Great One. He passes the puck with a Gretzky-like sixth sense, anticipating the movements of everyone else on the ice. A leftwinger, Kariya nevertheless likes to set up behind the opponent's net to the goalie's left, a la Mr. Wayne-derful. And at 5'11", 165 pounds, Kariya has been knocked for being too small, a criticism Gretzky endured before turning pro.
"It's almost sacrilegious to compare him to Wayne," says Maine's coach, Shawn Walsh. "But you can't help it." At week's end Kariya, a Vancouver native, was averaging 2.25 points a game, with 21 goals and 51 assists for the Black Bears, who are 30-0-2 and ranked No. 1 in the country. And just like you-know-who in 1978, Kariya was named to the all-tournament team at the World Juniors last month in Sweden for helping lead Canada to the gold. One final similarity: Teammates, coaches and reporters love the kid. Says Walsh, "He's so conscious of the team, there's no resentment that he's stealing the spotlight."
Kariya grew up an Edmonton Oiler fan, because his hometown Canucks were perennial cellar dwellers. "I enjoyed watching the [ Oilers'] Euro-style flow game, and I tried to incorporate some of what Wayne does into my game," he says, "the way he uses his teammates and finds open people. The game seems to slow down when he has the puck."
The same can be said of Kariya, "and only he knows when he'll accelerate," says Walsh. "Paul's extremely analytical. Earlier this season we were at a tournament in Alaska, and in the morning he asked which bench we'd have. I asked, 'Why?' He said, 'I like to visualize which goal I'll be skating toward.' This guy's mind is at a higher level."
Kariya's father, Tetsuhiko, a Japanese-Canadian who was born in a World War II internment camp, is a math and computer-science teacher at Argyle Secondary school. He and Paul's mother, Sharon, always wanted their son to go to college in the U.S., but the decision about whether to turn pro right out of high school was left to Paul. "I've always thought college hockey was a great place to learn the game," he says.
Still, it wasn't an easy choice. Kariya, according to one source, turned down $200,000 from the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League to remain eligible for college hockey. Instead, he played last season for Penticton, B.C., a Tier Two team, getting an astounding 132 points (45 goals, 87 assists) in 41 games.
Courted by the likes of Harvard and Boston University, Kariya chose Maine because it had an excellent hockey program (the Black Bears were ranked first most of last season also) and Orono reminded him of Penticton, "only colder." He hasn't regretted his decision. He has a 3.3 GPA and hopes to major in business administration. Kariya, however, will almost certainly turn pro before he graduates, and possibly as soon as next season. He'll be drafted in June—NHL central scouting has him rated sixth overall, a ranking that reflects reservations about his size—and in 1994 he would like to play for Canada in the Olympics. "Once he grows into a man physically, he'll be a dominant scorer in the NHL," says Walsh, who's hoping Kariya stays around long enough to bring the Black Bears their first NCAA championship.
"A lot will depend on when I feel I'm ready for an 84-game schedule, physically and mentally," Kariya says. "Right now I'm thinking there's no way I'll be ready for the NHL next year."
Kariya is favored to become the first freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award as the best college player in the country, but he has a more team-oriented goal in mind for this season. With Gretzky-like confidence he says, "We don't want to lose a game."