Kariya has a passion for Olympic hockey and he's absolutely enjoying himself at Team Canada's mini camp at the Father David Bauer Arena.
How much is Kariya enjoying himself? A tremendous amount. You can see it in his stride and in the way he whips his wrist shot, and how he interacts with the other 36 NHLers vying for a spot on Canada's entry in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. "This is great," says Kariya. "How can you not have fun?"
Kariya missed the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano because he was suffering from a concussion brought on when he was cross-checked by then Chicago Blackhawk Gary Suter about a month before NHLers made their debut on the Olympic stage.. He recalled not competing in what would have been his second Games, describing it as "the biggest disappointment of my career."
"I really wanted to make amends and get another opportunity to win a gold medal. I valued the Olympics so much as a kid growing up and I really wanted to play there, having family in Japan. It was a huge disappointment."
The amends he was referring to was the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Canada went into the tournament seeded 7th and nobody gave them a chance to mine anything but tin.. But the Canadians surprised everyone and lost to Sweden in a shootout in the gold medal final. Kariya took Canada's last shot in the shootout and he's never forgotten how goalie Tommy Salo, now with the Edmonton Oilers, kicked aside his effort.
"In a situation like that, you make your best move and give it your best shot and the bad thing is not going out there and making a move," says Kariya. "You have to give it your best and whatever happens, happens. "But we were not expected to do anything and while it was disappointing that we lost, it was a great feeling that we won the silver medal. It was bitter for awhile there but at the same time there were some good positives and I look back on it now with nothing but fond memories."
Kariya is perfectly suited to the international game. He has uncanny vision on the ice and he is one of the most creative players offensively in the Canadian line-up.
"He is one of the best players thinking-wise away from the puck," says associate coach Ken Hitchcock. "He is not just a thinker when he carries it. He understands the concept of how to use the big ice because he played at this level for a long time. He understands about getting lost on the ice and re-appearing. If he stays healthy and is ready to go in February, he will be a difficult guy to handle. He has North American attitude with Europaeum tendencies and he will be hard to defend."
Kariya has been on a line with Mario Lemieux and Brendan Shanahan, and suffice it to say there is happening when they head up the ice with the puck.
There's a feeling in Canada that the grassroots hockey system should be producing more Kariya's. That is an unfair assumption because players of Kariya's calibre do not come around every day. But the speedster supports any effort to enhance the skill level of Canadian kids and he hopes minor hockey coaches have strayed away from stressing defence and system-orientated hockey and focussed instead on skill development. "It is not the way hockey should be played. I do not know where that starts in our system but look at atoms and pee-wees, they are already talking about systems," says Kariya. "Yes you need instruction in the game but at that level teach guys skills and teach them have how to play."
Kariya has already been selected to the 2002 Olympic squad, along with Lemieux, Owen Nolan, Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Rob Blake, so he doesn't have to prove anything at this camp. But he feels it is essential that the Canadians assembled for four days of training and meetings. Kariya has been looking forward to playing with the elite of Canada since it was announced that NHLers would be going to Salt Lake in February.
"I can't stop thinking about it. All summer I have been thinking about it and it is just great to be here. We have players who can play any style of game," he says. "Starting in goal, just look at who we have. Defence, you have a lot of guys back there who can move the puck and see the game. It is good we are getting together here. We will not be playing that style and we all will have to adapt once we get there but to get a chance to work on that, to understand where the holes are, it is good to get together." As a last word, Kariya was asked whether there is a distinct Canadian style of hockey and if there is one, will that carry Canada to its first Olympic gold medal since 1952.
"Not so much a style but I think the expectations that come playing for Team Canada is something that comes into the game," replied Kariya. "We are expected to win every time we play the game and I think that gives us an edge and a drive that other nations do not have."
And only Canada has Paul Kariya.
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