Authors: Roy Macgregor
here is a curious off-ice game being played here at the world championships between Canadian goaltender Curtis Joseph and Canadian sharpshooter Paul Kariya. They take the overnight summaries from the NHL playoff gamesâwho scored, when they scored, and how they scoredâand the one holding the summary will ask the other to describe, without knowing, exactly how the goal was scored. The only information the other is given is who shot and who was in the net. Nothing else.
“Low to the stick side.”
It is not unusual for a goaltender to know so much of players' habits and styles, but most unusual for a playerâespecially a twenty-one-year-old in only his second NHL season. Most unusual. But then, Paul Kariya is a most unusual young man. To improve his eye-hand co-ordination, he taught himself to juggle. He used to spend so much time sitting quietly before a game “envisioning” exactly what would happen this night that he would actually “get all screwed up” when games did not go
precisely as imagined. He has read every word that has to do with Wayne Gretzky, and the way a player should prepare and behave. He has studied the films of Bobby Orr, who retired when Paul Kariya was two years old, to understand better the values of surprise acceleration. He will spend his summer sitting alone, quietly thinking about others playing their gameâJoe Sakic, low to the stick sideâand how he might take from them and give more to himself.
“I've never seen a player so focused,” says Team Canada general manager Pierre Gauthier, who three years ago drafted the Vancouver youngster when Gauthier was still with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Gauthier, like everyone else, respected Kariya's fanatical devotion to bettering himself. Unlike many othersâseveral of them NHL general managersâGauthier did not think Kariya lacked the size or the strength to play in the NHL. Three general managers went before Anaheim and took, in order, Alexandre Daigle (Ottawa), Chris Pronger (Hartford, now with St. Louis) and Chris Gratton (Tampa Bay).
Kariya has quickly emerged as the crown jewel in what was supposed to be the richest draft in years. In only his second year, he scored fifty goals for the Mighty Ducks. He has already scored four times for Canada at the world championships and is, head and shoulders, the best Canadian on the iceâeven if he only comes up to some of the other players' shoulders.
He never played junior. He went from British Columbia to the University of Maine on a scholarship and, in his freshman year, was given the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockeyâbut still he never imagined he would one day be an NHL star. “I never thought about the NHL,” he says. “I was perfectly prepared to be a businessman or a teacher.”
He stayed away from the NHL for a year and played, brilliantly, for the Canadian national teamâhe missed the shot in 1994 that gave Olympic gold to the Swedes; he won a world championship two months laterâand then signed a huge contract with
the Ducks that pays him $3 million a year. Disney, obviously, saw a future star in the making.
On the ice, it has worked out beyond even Disney's dreams. Paired with Finnish forward Teemu Selanne, Kariya is now half of the most exciting pair of wingers in the game. With Wayne Gretzky thirty-five and fading, the spotlight is shifting, and Paul Kariya can feel it coming. Off the ice, it has not been such a simple matter. He is only twenty-one, and they say he is cool. Aloof. In a recent Southam poll of Canadian hockey writers, his name surprisingly was on a list of those few players in the game who are generally considered “jerks.”
This early and unexpected image problem has perplexed and, in some cases, angered those who know him best, the officials who have worked with him and the players who have played with him. Gauthier considers him “one of the nicest kids I have ever met.” Canadian Hockey Association people find him dedicated, loyal and selfless. While several Canadian stars bailed out on the world championships, claiming everything from tiredness to lack of contract, Kariya immediately said yes, despite the fact that he had just spent ten hours in a dentist's chair getting repairs to four broken teeth.
The focus is hockey, and it leaves very little room for anything else. He doesn't read the papers or listen to the radio, and one suspects it is because he has not trusted what can be said about celebrity in a world that both craves and criticizes it. “I don't go out and try and create an image,” he says. “I'm a pretty quiet person. You're not going to get an outrageous quote from me.”
But what you will get is an insight into the game that only Gretzky before him has been able to offer. Gretzky once said he didn't go to where the puck was, but to where the puck will be. Kariya says: “Hockey is a lot like chess. You have certain moves that are always repeated and, knowing that, you can plan your next move.”
He is convinced that hockey prowess is a learned, rather than an inherited, ability. “My father never played the game,” he says,
“so you can't say it's natural. It's all learned.” He studies hockey as a scientist might study cultures. He talks to players and builds mental scouting cards on what everyone might do in a certain situation, just like baseball managers will study the opposition. He studies film to see how Gretzky would attack, how Lemieux will pass. When he discovered Bobby Orr on film, he found the secrets of acceleration.
“You're going to be a lot more effective,” he says, “if the defence has your speed pegged at seventyâeighty and then you can suddenly jack it up to a hundred. Bobby Orr had four to five speeds. I've only got two.”
So far. But he is also twenty-one, and on the verge of hockey superstardom. He will need to acquire more tricks of the trade, both in Bobby Orr acceleration and in Wayne Gretzky's renowned ability to pull out of something that seems to be spinning out of control.
Gretzky in fact met with Kariya, by arrangement, at the NHL All-Star Game in Boston, and they talked about image and responsibility and being ready for the spotlight when it finds you. Teemu Selanne, perhaps hockey's friendliest star, has been brought to Anaheim both to help Kariya score points and to help him adjust to being in the limelight.
There is no doubt in anyone's mind that this slight twenty-one-year-old who never imagined he would even be here is being groomed to become the game's next big star. Paul Kariya did not have a Walter Gretzky to warn him that he'd be on display all his life, with people watching for every mistake. He didn't have that because he was never a ten-year-old phenomenon, and his father did not understand that world of hockey. He did, however, understand responsibility.
“What my parents taught me,” he says, “is that it doesn't matter what you do in life. Whether you're a businessman or a garbage man, you've got to be a good person.”
And that, he believes, will have to be enough.
Any assessment of Paul Kariya's career would have to take bad luck into consideration. He left the Ducks before they won the Stanley Cup in 2007, playing for the Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues. Kariya was supposed to be the key to Canada's 1998 entry in the Nagano Olympics but had his hopes crushed by a vicious cross-check to the head when Chicago's Gary Suter reacted to a Kariya goal. Kariya missed the Olympics and the rest of the season with post-concussion syndrome. He was concussed again when hit by New Jersey Devils defenceman Scott Stevens during the 2003 Stanley Cup finals, which the Devils won. He sat out the entire 2010â11 season with post-concussion syndrome. With 989 points in 989 games, his record remains remarkable, despite the harsh realities of head injuries
I retired in 1971, the same year Guy arrived, and he came to me and asked me what I thought about him taking my sweater number. “If you want it, take it,” I told him. “But don't you think you already have enough on you? Why don't you pick another number and make it famous yourself?”
he new smell of Quebec is known by its trademark: No. 10. The odour may be appropriately described as
as it rises this fall out of pre-shave, after-shave, cologne, deodorant and the true saviour of Christmas, soap-on-a-rope. The same number can be found pushing automobiles, skates, sticks and yogourt. No. 10 surfaces on the binders, pencil cases and exercise books the children carry to school. Even the company is called Number 10 Promotions Inc., and the presidentâfor those without programsâis Guy Lafleur.
The company Guy Lafleur keeps as a hockey player, however, has narrowed down year by year until today there is only himself. While the National Hockey League launches its sixty-second season this week, there are only the long-shot mutterings of the insane left. Will Lafleur's team, the Montreal Canadiens, which has already won more than one-third of all NHL championships, somehow fail to win yet another? Will Lafleur himselfâmost valuable player over the past two seasons, scoring champion over the past threeâoutdo even his last year's feat of sixty goals? The answer is already with us, lying in a sealed envelope in a suburban office outside Montreal. Inside is written Guy Lafleur's annual prediction for his coming season, and the hint is thatâdespite a broken nose suffered at the end of the exhibition scheduleâhe will indeed do better.
It is Lafleur's enormous gift that makes him special, certainly not his walkâthe steps too longânor his face: greaser soft, it is more the look of someone who should be topping up your battery. The eyes, however, brown and shimmering, seem to ransack the immediate area about him. Not in fearâthough that was once the case when undercover detectives took every step he tookâbut in simple anticipation. Everywhere, even in the USSR, where customs agents asked for his autograph, they know the man who, like Bambi's skunk, is proud to be called “Flower.” Crossing Maisonneuve Boulevard, the eyes intercept a sultry woman who steps sideways just long enough to kiss Lafleur on the lips. Out of a hydro manhole two workers rise and call his name. A woman brings her son forward for a laying on of his hands. Those who don't want just to touch would like to give. A man promises a new suit, a girl a present. An unnamed European country this summer offered a butler, a housekeeper, a villa on the water, a new luxury car and a hockey lord's ransom, all tax-free. To collect it, he only had to change his sweater.
The man an entire province prayed for when Jean BÃ©liveau moved on has arrived at his full bloom. It is hardly possible to
believe today that those same hands that ruffle children as if their imaginations were crops he himself had planted once struggled to put down his desperate feelings in poetry. It is harder still to realize these same friendly eyes could have spilled tears over the red, white and blue Canadiens-coloured chesterfield in Jean BÃ©liveau's office as Lafleur sat crying over whatever it was that had gone so wrong with his promised life.
But eyes can also weep for joy. And Antoine Viau, who has waited much of his life for this moment, is dampening slightly as he stands watching his beloved Canadiens skate and shoot and actually breathe. The Montreal Forum is empty of fans, but Guy Lafleurâwho an hour earlier has said “What good is money when you play and lose?”âis skating with Stanley Cup intentions during a $25-per-player pre-season scrimmage. His wispy hair matted with the cream cake his teammates have used to celebrate his twenty-seventh birthday, Lafleur commands his magic to turn a 4â2 deficit into victory. In the dying minutes he scores, sets up the tying goal, then single-handedly wins the game in overtime with a phantom shot from the point. He has served notice against the best hockey team in the world, his own, that Lafleur is ready for the new season. For Antoine Viau, who sweeps floors nights at the American-owned IBM plant, the state of
is, in many ways, the state of his own well-being. The team and Lafleur are an unspoken vindication.
“Ah, Lafleur,” Viau says, courteously speaking English to the reporter who helped him sneak in. “LafleurÂ â¦Â LafleurÂ â¦Â I love it!”
Guy Lafleur is more symbol than human to a great many QuÃ©bÃ©cois. “There is,” says Jerry Petrie, Lafleur's agent, “probably more pressure on him to perform from the people in this province than there is on RenÃ© LÃ©vesque.”
We may be, as Irving Layton has said, “a dull people enamoured of childish games,” but Layton is certainly not speaking for those to whom hockey is a far more mature passion than politics. For them, Lafleur occupies the highest office in the land.
“Guy is the true throwback,” says Ken Dryden, the Canadiens' goaltender. “I look out sometimes and see the St. Lawrence skater, not the player, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.”
Pierre Larouche, who came to Montreal from Pittsburgh last year, says he actually used to cheer for Lafleur when their teams played: “They'd be ahead 6â1 and I'd be on the bench wishing he'd score more, just so I could watch and see how it is done.”
The last to recognize this special status has probably been Lafleur himself. In Moscow this summer he was asked by the head of hockey and the director of all Soviet sports to pick his own world all-star team and when he came to right wing he blushed deeply and said “Me!”âquickly covering his embarrassment with a laugh that implied it was merely his own little joke, but the Soviet officials gravely nodded in total agreement.
“The Flower is a very strange person,” says Lafleur's linemate and good friend Steve Shutt. It is not for any obvious idiosyncrasy such as his superstitious tap of the goal netting to start each game and period; what is truly odd, in Shutt's evaluation, is that Lafleur is “the furthest thing from an athlete you'd ever want to see off the ice.” A loyal consumer of Molson's ale (the brewery owns his team) and a chain-smoker who two weeks ago switched to a pipe, Lafleur does little more than work out with suntan oil in the off-season.