One of the most difficult aspects of determining a player’s worth vis-à-vis the Hall of Fame is when he is a Hall of Fame player in terms of skill set and importance to the game but sees his career cut short or hampered by injury.
We understand that injuries are part of the game and that players who can avoid them are treated differently than those who cannot. We also see players like Cam Neely enshrined even though, statistically speaking, they may not measure up to others in the Hall because injuries cut short their outstanding careers. A different kind of player, Paul Kariya nonetheless presents a similar problem and might represent one of the great Hall of Fame debates in recent memory.
The case for
In a nutshell, the case is simple: When he was at his best, Kariya was one of the top five or six forwards in the game. He was electric with the puck and had vision on the ice that drew repeated comparisons to Wayne Gretzky. He was a student of the game and worked tirelessly at honing and refining his craft. He was a pro’s pro. His impact on the Anaheim Ducks franchise, alongside longtime friend and linemate Teemu Selanne, cannot be overstated. Some 9,000 people attended Kariya’s first practice as a Duck, and 16,000 watched his first exhibition game. He was named captain of the Ducks at age 21, making him at the time the youngest captain in the NHL.
He scored 94 goals in the two-season period between 1995 and 1997, and finished with 402 total goals and 989 points in 989 games. He was second in the Hart Trophy balloting in 1997, was a first-team All-Star three times and was a two-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy. Although he never won a Stanley Cup, Kariya was captain for and a key contributor to the Ducks’ run to the 2003 Stanley Cup finals, which they lost in seven games to the New Jersey Devils. During that series, Kariya was flattened by Scott Stevens of the Devils in Game 6 but returned to score a pivotal goal to help force a seventh game. Internationally, Kariya won an Olympic silver medal with Team Canada before joining the NHL in 1994 and then won a gold medal in 2002, playing mostly on a line with Joe Sakic and Mario Lemieux. He would have been an integral member of the 1998 Olympic team but was sidelined by a vicious crosscheck by Gary Suter shortly before the tournament and did not play again that season.
The case against
Outside of the 2003 playoffs, Kariya’s teams never advanced beyond the second round of the postseason tournament, and he ended up playing in only 46 postseason games in his career (although he did record 39 points). While he was one of the most electrifying players of his generation, Kariya did not earn top honors via an Art Ross or Hart Trophy, a distinction that is historically important to Hall of Fame voters. In the end, we can only imagine what Kariya’s career would have looked like, how many more awards he might have won and how much more success his teams might have had in the playoffs had he not suffered the multiple concussions that ultimately led to his early retirement.
Should Kariya be punished for the recklessness of others? Was he one of the game’s great players? Was he a man who would rank among the class of his generation? No, yes and yes. Paul Kariya has a place in our Hall of Fame.
ESPN panel: 73 percent voted into Hockey Hall of Fame.