A revived image in Nashville? Kariya, Preds hope so

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- This is the story of a star hockey player who's lost his star and a beleaguered hockey town banking its future that he can find it again.

The story of Paul Kariya and the Nashville Predators is the story of a marriage of convenience that both sides hope blossoms into a full-fledged, honest-to-goodness romance.

Whether it happens, whatever happens, promises to make this surprising relationship one of the most interesting stories of the coming NHL season.

For both parties, the stakes are high.

For Kariya, who will celebrate his 31st birthday early in the 2005-06 season, there is the small matter of his once-peerless reputation.

Not so long ago, the flashy Vancouver native was considered one of the best four or five players in the world. Twice, he topped the 100-point plateau. He has played in seven All-Star contests. He commanded top dollar. When he was injured and unable to play in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, many believe his absence cost Canada a gold medal.

Four years later, Kariya would win gold in Salt Lake City. But shortly after the 2002 Games, Kariya's stock began to decline.

Although Kariya delivered 81 regular-season points and his Anaheim Mighty Ducks advanced to the 2003 Stanley Cup finals, it was largely on the back of goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere and critics questioned the play of Kariya, who managed just 12 points in 21 playoff games.

That offseason, the unrestricted free agent turned down a significant offer to remain with the Ducks and joined longtime teammate and close friend Teemu Selanne in Denver, playing for a fraction of his market value. Many predicted the Avalanche would dominate and win their third Stanley Cup. They did not, and the move turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for Kariya, who injured his wrist in the first two weeks of the season, reinjured it later in the season and then suffered an ankle injury just before the playoffs. He managed just 36 points in 51 games, adding one assist in four playoff games.

What followed wasn't so much what happened to Kariya as what didn't.

There was the World Cup of Hockey a year ago, to which no invitation was extended. Likewise, Kariya was not part of Canada's World Championship squad this past May, and when Canada's Olympic hopefuls gathered in British Columbia in mid-August, in Kariya's backyard ostensibly, the one-time national hero was once again absent.

Was he ticked off?

Kariya, sweat-drenched from his first on-ice session at the Predators' training camp, paused for the briefest of moments. The trace of a glower or a grimace appeared and then quickly receded, replaced by a wry grin.

"Well, it's not a good thing, that's for sure," said Kariya, who admits to being "really disappointed" not to get a chance to play in the World Cup of Hockey.

And he understands not being invited to the Olympic orientation camp. But the slights cut deeply for a player who has been an important supporter of Canada's national teams.

In terms of motivation, Kariya knows the best way to catch the eye of Wayne Gretzky and the rest of the Canadian Olympic brain trust, the best way to recapture that elusive "star" feeling, is to help his new team get off to the best start possible.

"That's where my focus is," Kariya said.

And that's just fine for Nashville GM David Poile and the rest of the Predators' organization, the other half of this unlikely courtship.

The son of longtime team-builder Bud Poile, David Poile has slowly, indeed painstakingly, built a well-coached, hard-working team that, in spite of constant references to the contrary, plays an up-tempo game similar to what carried Tampa Bay to a Stanley Cup championship. What they have always lacked is a big-stick player to reflect the team's identity, a Jarome Iginla, Vincent Lecavalier, Joe Thornton type of player.

But with a new economic landscape practically tailor-made for Nashville (owner Craig Leipold was a driving force on the owners' side of the lockout), Poile had to up the ante. He did, setting his sights on Kariya and making him the biggest name, not to mention highest-paid player, in team history.

"It just seemed to make sense on the ice and off the ice," he said.

Poile said the fit became crystal clear from the moment they began talking to Kariya and discovered that instead of interviewing a potential member of the organization he was interviewing them. While Poile was doing his due diligence, making sure Kariya was fully recovered from his injuries and was ready to be "the man" in a place like Nashville, Kariya was doing the same.

Kariya called players he knew, including new teammate Greg Johnson, whom Kariya has known since his national team days in the early 1990s. He called old coaches who knew head coach Barry Trotz. In the end, he figured this was a place where he could get back on the map.

"I'd love to take credit [for the due diligence]. But that's Paul, and due diligence is a good way to put it," Kariya's longtime agent Don Baizley said. "Paul is so methodical.

"Paul had his own sense of the team on his own."

Kariya likened the process to investing in a company's stock. He was impressed with the personnel Poile has assembled, and likewise was attracted to the style of game employed by Trotz. He was also impressed that Trotz has been the only head coach in franchise history.

"That says a lot about the coach," Kariya said.

"You've got to do your homework and then you make a choice and you never look back. I took my time and did my research."

Kariya signed a two-year deal worth $4.5 million per year. With the new salary-cap system, many saw the signing as overly generous in spite of reports that other teams were willing to spend more to bring Kariya aboard.

"This was not a situation where we just paid the most money," Poile said. "He's the one that made the decision. He's the one that chose Nashville."

Not that Kariya is any stranger to taking the path less traveled.

A gifted player as a teenager in British Columbia, Kariya eschewed the traditional major-junior track and attended the University of Maine, where he became the top college player in the country. After the Mighty Ducks made him the fourth overall pick in the 1993 draft, Kariya chose to play for Canada's national team. Even after leading Canada to a silver medal at the Lillehammer Olympics (Canada lost to Sweden in a shootout; Peter Forsberg scored the winning goal), Kariya remained with the national team and played in the 1994 World Championships.

"If you're given opportunities to make decisions in your life, I think you have to know yourself," Kariya said.

Within days of signing in Nashville, Kariya bought a house. He has been tireless in agreeing to interviews and seems comfortable with his new role as the "face of the franchise," a role he never seemed completely at ease with in Anaheim.

"Certainly that's something that I think I'm better at than before," he said. "The hockey culture is one where you're almost frowned upon if you're seen in the paper everyday, it's almost like you're trying to be better than the team. I certainly don't have anyone from ESPN on speed dial."

On the first day of training camp, Predators players young and old arrived at the team's practice facility near Vanderbilt University to find another player already long into his preskate workout. It was Kariya. Later, when the teams finished their practice with a shootout drill, it was Kariya, saddled with mostly defensemen, who netted the winner, prompting a spontaneous celebration among his teammates and a rousing applause from the 100 or so fans in attendance.

To some degree, Kariya's signing in Nashville is a crapshoot. Just ask Flyers GM Bob Clarke, who saw big-name free agents Forsberg and Derian Hatcher go down with injuries before the first day of camp. But in a town like Nashville, where there is almost no margin for error, this is the kind of gamble that has long-term repercussions no matter how it shakes out.

If Kariya is the player he once was and believes he can be again, the Predators will become a legitimate Stanley Cup threat, not just this season but down the road, and the days of moaning that Nashville is a blight on the league will disappear.

"He gives us credibility as an organization," team captain Johnson said. "I think he's going to help us attract free agents down the road. He's going to be our go-to guy."

If Kariya cannot shake the specter of the 2003-04 debacle in Colorado, the Predators likely won't spend to bring in another big-name player and will struggle to make the playoffs, holding back the franchise's growth process once again.

One thing is certain, with No. 9 in the house, the Predators aren't going to sneak up on anyone this season.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.