While Steve Kariya‘s time in the BCHL was short and sweet, the diminutive forward from North Vancouver, BC left it all on the ice.
As a fresh-faced 16-year-old, Kariya starred for the Nanaimo Clippers during the 1994-95 season under head coach Garry Davidson.
In 60 games, the Burnaby Winter Club product dazzled fans with his scoring touch, notching 39 goals and 60 assists in 60 games.
“It was a big year for me both as a hockey player and as a person. My first year living away from home was certainly an adjustment. Luckily, I had a great billet family and I also learned a lot from Garry and the rest of the coaching staff.”
“Overall, it helped pave the way for a future in hockey.”
Kariya noted his familiarity with Davidson made the decision to come to central Vancouver Island that much easier.
“I had worked with Garry at previous summer camps. He was previously with Penticton and then made the change over to Nanaimo that summer. I did speak with other teams but felt Nanaimo was the best situation for me.”
In what was considered a rebuilding year, the Clippers went 25-33-0-2 and were swept in a best-of-three preliminary series at the hands of the Surrey Eagles.
Standing at only five-foot-six, there was some concern Kariya’s lack of size might not translate very well to the BCHL. The issue was also in the back of Davidson’s mind as the game was a lot rougher than it is today.
“I was very small and light and even though I was close to making Penticton the previous year, it was the right decision to send me back to midget. That experience helped me prepare for Nanaimo and with every game and practice I felt I developed continuously throughout the season,” added Kariya.
The now 43-year-old states the rivalries with Powell River and Penticton were always fun, especially on the road.
“Powell River was always a tough opponent making that extra ferry trip. I remember Penticton being very good that year. All the rinks now are very cookie-cutter but back then there were still a lot of the old rinks around. It was different to go to each city and play in their rink with some having different sizes so it made it difficult to win on the road.”
Breaking out with the Black Bears
After the Clippers season came to a close, Kariya went on to greener pastures in the NCAA.
As luck would have it, Steve eventually chose the same school his older brother Paul attended – the University of Maine. However, the final decision was anything but easy.
“I remember that very well. Once I made the decision to commit to Maine I could have stayed another year in Nanaimo. I know Garry left it up to me, of course, but thought with my size it would have been beneficial to play another year of junior. Having gone through it, I see that argument more and more now as I get older.”
“My first year of college was up and down as you are playing against men. I was still very small and slight but made the decision and stuck with it. My brother Paul had just left Maine and won a national championship the year before I decided to go, so I was very excited to go to a top notch program. For me, it was the right fit and the right decision,” added Kariya.
Following in your brother’s footsteps is never an easy thing to do, given that Paul turned out to be one of the most prolific point producers in the NHL during his generation. He notched 989 points in exactly the same amount of games for the Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, and Colorado Avalanche.
Steve finished his freshman year at Maine with 22 points in 39 games as the Black Bears went 14-6-4 in the Hockey East Conference. They lost the championship game 3-2 to Providence.
In his sophomore year, it all started to click offensively for Kariya as he tallied 19 goals and 31 assists in 35 games.
Maine went 16-7-1 that season but finished third in its conference. Kariya took over as captain in his third season and produced another 50-point campaign. However, Maine finished with a less-than-stellar 10-11-3 regular season mark.
The playoffs turned out to be a different story, as the Black Bears upset New Hampshire in the quarterfinals before moving on to beat UMass-Lowell in the semis by a 6-2 score. Kariya and Maine once again fell short in the finals, bowing out to Boston College.
Maine saved its best for last during the 1998-99 season, led by Kariya, Cory LaRose, Ben Guite, Niko Dimitrakos, and Alfie Michaud. The Black Bears finished with a 17-5-2 record, good enough for second place in Hockey East, but fell in the conference semifinals to Boston College.
However, Kariya and company caught fire at the national championship. They steamrolled Ohio State and Clarkson before renewing acquaintances with the BC Eagles.
Michaud bested Boston College netminder Scott Clemmensen during that Frozen Four matchup in Anaheim, California to lead Maine to the final against New Hampshire.
However, Guite and Dimitrakos, along with outstanding goaltending by Michaud, who was later named tournament MVP, kept Maine competitive.
Marcus Gustafsson played the hero for Maine when he swept home a rebound off Conklin to claim the national title.
“Not many people get to win championships in their career. It was neat because when I started my college career, my first tournament was in California at the Great Western Forum where the (Los Angeles) Kings used to play, and then to play my last game in the finals in that state was kind of sweet to win it.”
“My first two years we couldn’t participate in the NCAA tournament because of recruitment violations. That was our one shot to get some playoff time and to make a run at it and all things came together. We didn’t have the most talent but I think how hard we worked for each other and that was one of the highlights of my career,” mentioned Kariya.
While his play on the ice caught the attention of pro scouts, Kariya was quick to give praise to head coach Shawn Walsh.
“He was very demanding, always wanting the best out of you and that is what good coaches do. He taught us so much off the ice just about being a good person, being prepared, and professional. He treated us like professional hockey players and wanted that to reciprocate with our behavior.”
“Many of my teammates (went) on to several successful careers with businesses and they tell me everything Shawn taught us applies to the sort of business they are in. It was a huge loss to the hockey world when he passed. I am pretty sure he would have had the chance to coach in the NHL. If you look at his record he was one of the best college coaches of all-time.”
Walsh passed away at the age of 46 after contracting a common form of kidney cancer called renal cell carcinoma. From 1984 to 2001, he compiled a career coaching record of 399-215-44.
Kariya finished his NCAA career with no shortage of individual accolades. He was named to the Hockey East All-Academic Team on three occasions. Kariya also took home the Len Ceglarski Award for Sportsmanship in 1997, 1998, and 1999. In addition, he was a Hobey Baker Award finalist, First Team All-Star and First All-American in 1998-99.
Kariya left Maine in 1999, graduating with a major in business.