Former Nanaimo Clippers star Steve Kariya saw his pro career span over 640 games across five different leagues in four countries.
During part two of my chat with Kariya, he talks about life as a pro following his time with the University of Maine Black Bears as well as becoming a scout with the New York Islanders.
Coming back home
After leaving Maine as a national champion, Kariya had another big decision to make. Where would he sign to kick off his pro career?
Luckily for him, the Vancouver Canucks came calling and the rest is history.
“I didn’t have a lot of professional offers, maybe three NHL two-way contract offers. Vancouver was kind of a no-brainer decision for me being raised in North Vancouver, growing up in BC, and watching the Canucks all my life. It was a dream come true for me to play in my hometown over the next three and half years.”
“The Canucks were a rebuilding team so it was a good opportunity for me to put my best foot forward and play well so that I was going to get a chance to play and that is what happened.”
In the 1999-2000 season, Kariya split time with the Canucks and the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch. In the minors, he posted 41 points in 29 games before getting the call up to play with Vancouver.
“I learned a lot. With Stan Smyl coaching me in the minors and Marc Crawford with the Canucks, it was a great experience. Of course, when you look back on your career, you think you could have played more games at the NHL level and had more individual success.”
“You always want more, but it was a pretty good experience at all levels.”
Kariya’s first NHL game was against the New York Rangers where he had the opportunity to line up against one of his idols growing up in Theo Fleury.
“He was one of the smaller players in the league and back when I played there were not a lot of them around with the old ‘clutch and grab’ hockey. The Rangers were stacked at that time and you look around (and see those great players), but as you play more games you get more comfortable.”
His first National Hockey League goal was against the Montreal Canadiens. He beat Jose Theodore following a nice feed from Cassels.
“I got a wrist shot off past the goalie and it went in. It was at home so it was a tremendous memory for me – I won’t forget that for sure. I had so many good memories at different levels throughout the years.”
The following season, Kariya split time again between the Canucks and the International Hockey League’s Kansas City Blades. He appeared in just 17 games with the big club, amassing seven points before being sent down and recording 44 points in 43 games with Kansas City.
“The tough thing about the second year is that I had a really bad elbow injury at the end of the year, which was a triceps divulsion. When I was 12 years old, I shattered my elbow, and I kind of re-injured it. I missed any chance at playing in the playoffs so that compounded things and pushed me a little further back in my third year.”
With Kariya not in the long-term plans of the Canucks, he found himself back in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose where he posted 90 points in 105 regular season games.
“We were up there when it came to attendance so it was really good from that standpoint to be playing in the minors in a big league city. Obviously, most of those minor league cities are not like that when you include the fans and the media coverage. It was a really good setup for the AHL at the time.”
From Albany to Europe
Kariya’s time in Manitoba came to an end halfway through the 2002-03 season when his NHL rights were dealt to New Jersey. He spent the next year and a bit with the Albany River Rats, which was the Devils’ AHL affiliate.
“Getting traded was a shock, but I loved my time in Albany as I met some tremendous people (like) Chris and Lou Lamoriello, who I currently work for with the Islanders. It was eye-opening to me getting traded to that organization and then they beat my brother’s team to win the Stanley Cup.”
“The culture they had in New Jersey at that time, they were one of the best teams in the NHL every year and it ran deep right into the AHL. (Their) coach Larry Robinson would come down and sometimes coach us in the minors. Everything Lou does is to win and he puts everything into it. A big reason for what I am doing now is because of them.”
After putting a bow on his time in upper New York State, Kariya headed overseas for the final six years of his career, playing for several teams in Finland and Sweden. With his lack of size, he felt at that point in his career, he was better suited for the wider ice surface.
“Jyrki Lumme was part owner of the Ilves team and I talked to him, and Jarko Ruutu has been a lifelong friend since we met, so I had some Finnish friends I relied upon.”
“Obviously, everyone’s goal is to play in the NHL, but if I had to compare playing in Europe or the minors, I think my preference would be the European leagues in Finland and Sweden. I really enjoyed hockey, the fans were great, and when I was in Sweden, we sold out a 12,000 seat arena every game.”
In 2004-05, Kariya led the Finnish-based SM-Liga in points with 59 and assists with 35.
“A big thing that happened for me that year was that (1999 first overall) pick Patrick Stefan joined our team and we really clicked. (We) had great chemistry and then we added another winger. It was probably one of the best lines I ever played on. We were not a top team by any means because every team had NHL players but on a personal side, it was fun playing with top players.”
The following season he suited up for the Espoo Blues where he tallied 49 points, tied for the team lead in scoring with Joakim Eriksson.
“I remember telling my agent Don Baizley that if I was going to Europe, I was only going to sign one-year deals. This way, I could have control over my career, and each year it was neat getting different opportunities. I liked having the ability to control my future from year to year.”
Kariya then made the jump to Sweden, signing on with the Frolunda Indians.
“Frolunda is a fabulous city on the west coast of Sweden similar to Vancouver. (It was) probably some of the best fans I have ever played in front of.”
“Some of those rinks in Sweden were some of the loudest I played in because of the huge hockey culture. That was really fun.”
Kariya finished his Scandinavian sojourn with two more years in Finland with JYP and HPK before hanging up the skates in 2010.
“I ended up having a pretty bad hip injury in my last year. I had some tests done and it was bone on bone in one hip and I had surgery in Vail, Colorado once I got home. My doctor told me that I should retire and stressed the importance of life after hockey and not hobbling around.”
From coaching to scouting
“I have been retired for 10 years and I have been working for about half of that time thinking about what I wanted to do. I reached out to Chris Lamoriello early in my retirement and talked to former coaches and GMs about what it would take to become a coach or a scout.”
Kariya’s first job from his post-playing days was as an assistant coach with the Portland Winterhawks during the 2012-13 campaign.
“Travis Green has been a good friend of my brother’s for a long time and he asked me to come. It’s funny because my former assistant coach with the Canucks Mike Johnston received a suspension so Travis asked me to help out and I didn’t think long about it.”
“I thought it was a great opportunity to work for and learn from Travis and Portland is a top organization. We ended up winning the playoffs and lost in the Memorial Cup finals to Nate Mackinnon’s Halifax Mooseheads.”
From there, Kariya spent two years as an amateur scout with the New Jersey Devils. After taking a few years off, he rejoined Lou Lamoriello as a pro scout with the New York Islanders, a position he still holds today.
Steve’s younger brother Martin spent two years in the BCHL with the Victoria Salsa before becoming the third Kariya brother to play for the University of Maine.
He spent most of his playing career in the minors and in Europe with stints in Norway, Latvia, Finland, and Switzerland. Steve also has two sisters in his family named Noriko who became a professional boxer as well as Michiko.