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
My hometown of Vancouver has mountains and coast line and fog, but Maine is special. In the fall we would sit staring out of the window during bus trips to games. You know how athletes always have something smart to say? On those trips none of us would say anything except to express our wonder at the colors. I also loved the Maine snow. I used to walk from my dorm to Alfond Arena, maybe 10 or 15 minutes, in the snow for a game on a Friday night and think, "Ah, this is hockey." Ruined my only pair of dress shoes.
Lobster, sure. Sometimes they even served it in the cafeteria. But everyone knows Maine lobster. They don't know the buffalo wings at Legend's, which was one of the college hangouts in Orono when I was there—and actually affected my hockey career. When Boston University was recruiting me, they took me to the Cheers bar and a Bruins-Kings game at Boston Garden. Maine took me to Legend's for those wings, which just about clinched it. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention Pat's Pizza in Orono. Greasy. Thin crust. When I close my eyes, I can still taste their pepperoni pizza.
I showed up in Orono with a suitcase, my hockey gear, a sleeping bag and $200 in my wallet. I wasn't quite 18. I was coming from across the continent. And people couldn't have made me feel more welcome. I got to know a lot of families in the community. When my father, T.K., died during last season, one of the first calls I got was from Bob Bazinet, who was like my surrogate father when I was in Orono.
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.