Paul Kariya is one of the greatest hockey players to come from British Columbia. In his 15 year playing career, he scored 989 points in 989 games, appeared in seven all-star games and won back-to-back Lady Byng Trophies in 1996 and 1997. With Team Canada, Kariya won an Olympic Gold Medal in 2002, a World Championship Gold Medal in 1994 and a World Junior Gold in 1993. In 2017, Kariya was voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Kariya enjoyed an incredible hall of fame career, but back in the early 1990s, he could have played junior hockey for the Victoria Cougars.
In 1990 the Cougars drafted Kariya and were excited to rebuild the team around their top prospect. Unfortunately, Kariya refused to report to the Cougars because of their abysmal record (the 1989-90 Cougars won only five games all season). Kariya decided it was in his best interest to join the Pentiction Panthers of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) and work towards earning an American college scholarship. Even though Kariya spurned the Cougars, the team continued to pursue him in hopes he would change his mind. On January 23, 1991, Rick Hopper, Head Coach / Director of Hockey Operations, said, "Paul could completely change the fortunes of our franchise. "We want him very badly to play hockey for us." (1)
When the Cougars realized they were unable to sign Kariya, they traded his rights to the Tri-City Americans in October 1991 along with Todd Harris in exchange for David Hebky, Frank Defrenza, Jeff Fancy, and Jamie Burt. Hebky, Defrenza and Fancy were with the Cougars for just the remainder of the 1991-92 season while Burt attended the University of North Dakota in 1991-92 before joining the Cougars in 1992-93.
Bob McCammon, President of the Americans, was elated about the trade, “if we can get Kariya, it’d be a real coup. He’s a franchise-type player. Those don’t come along every day.” (2) McCammon tried everything to get Kariya to join the Americans but even an offer of a $100,000 - $200,000 signing bonus was not enough temptation for him to leave Penticton (3).
In his two years with the Panthers, Kariya scored 244 points, won the rookie of the year trophy in 1991, was the BCHL Most Valuable Player in 1991 and 1992 and earned a scholarship to the University of Maine. In 1993, as a member of the Maine Black Bears, he won the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA most valuable player and was drafted in the first round (4th overall) by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Conversely, from 1991 to 1993, the Cougars won 10, 15 and 20 games respectively finishing in last place each season. The Cougars franchise moved to Prince George after the 1993-94 season when they finished last for the fifth consecutive year.
Looking back to 1990, Paul Kariya made the right choice in refusing to join the Victoria Cougars. But you just wonder how the history of the Cougars would have changed if Paul Kariya decided to join the team instead of going to Penticton. Could one superstar player have turned the Cougars into a winning franchise and kept the team from moving to Prince George?
(1) Frank Luba. “Young Fleury in Royal Test,” The Province; January 23, 1991: 67
(2) Lance Goshko “WHL Report,” Medicine Hat News; November 2, 1991: 14