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WHEN SI asked me to write an essay about Maine, I jumped at the chance. I lived there only a year and a half, during my three semesters at the University of Maine in Orono, in 1992 and '93. But in that short time I fell in love with the state. My first year there was unforgettable, the greatest period of my life in terms of personal growth. Certainly the Kariya family embraced Maine. My brothers, Steve and Martin, both professional hockey players, also went to the university, and one of my sisters, Noriko, played field hockey for the Black Bears. That's 13½ years' worth of Kariyas, if you add us up.¶ I'm not trying to flatter Mainers (they aren't very big on that), but as I see it the state is one of a kind.
Here are three of the reason I became a Mainer at heart:
•The natural beauty
Maybe it's because a Maine winter is pretty bleak, or maybe it has to do with the Black Bears' two national championships and 12 appearances in the Frozen Four, but sometimes we seemed more like a franchise than a college team. Our coach, Shawn Walsh, forged a great tradition in Orono, and almost every player who went through the program responded with intense loyalty. Coach Walsh had a great presence, a wonderful way about him. Whenever we would travel as a group, he would make sure everybody got up and spoke. By the end of the season even the most tongue-tied freshman had gained the confidence to speak in public. Coach Walsh touched so many of us.
Mainers love hockey. NHL guys from BC and BU tell me they were actually a little scared when they played at Maine. We had a terrific team in 1992-93—our goalies were Mike Dunham and Garth Snow—and our fans were always on the visitors. Now I'm in 20,000-seat arenas in the NHL, and the atmosphere isn't the same. Those 5,500 in Maine felt like more than 20,000. And the fans genuinely cared about the outcome and about us.
I remember landing in Bangor after we'd won the 1993 NCAA championship in Milwaukee. It was a 15-minute drive to campus, and there were people on the overpasses with signs congratulating us and cars honking their horns. There was a pep rally in the gym afterward. I never heard a rink louder.
I never feel like a visitor when I go back to Maine. I've always thought of the state as one of my homes. In the truest sense, I grew up there.
Colorado Avalanche winger Paul Kariya, a seven-time NHL All-Star, won the Hobey Baker Award at Maine in 1993.