Kariya's decision easy; the reason is not
Paul Kariya sounded positively buoyant.
He talked about how good he felt and the clarity he had. He talked about the future, a future without hockey, as it turns out, but a future full of promise.
And if you're looking for melancholy or regret or self-doubt, Kariya will disappoint.
"I feel fantastic," he told ESPN.com from his adopted home in California Tuesday, a day before his retirement was announced in a brief statement. "I do feel much better. I don't want people to think I'm in trouble right now."
Still, as one of the most skilled players of his generation leaves the game, there remains a sense of loss, because the sport is the poorer for not having him in it and of the way his career came to a too-early close.
After missing the entire 2010-11 season because of post-concussion issues, Kariya's decision to retire reminds us of the great weight the concussion problem poses on the NHL and how "feeling great" does not necessarily mean "being better."
In Kariya's case, the two would never meet. One part of Kariya's life, his blazing speed and deft skill on the ice that brought fans to their feet, is over for good; he now must be content with the not-so-small gift of simply feeling better.
Kariya said there was no angst about making this decision.
"This is a black-and-white issue," he said of retiring. "It wasn't very difficult at all."
Initially, one of the continent's top concussion doctors and a man well-familiar with NHL players, Mark Lovell, told Kariya last season that the forward suffered brain damage and wasn't able to play.
"He said to me, 'No one in my profession would clear you to play this season,'" Kariya recalled. Lovell also told Kariya that if it had been up to him, he would have suggested Kariya retire right then and there.
"I was shocked," Kariya said.
Even this past spring, when Kariya was feeling better and teams were calling to see whether he might be available for a late-season run or perhaps for the 2011-12 season, Lovell told Kariya he was in no position to play.
Kariya began working with Dr. Daniel Amen, who is one of the NFL's leading post-concussion experts, using his workout regimen and protocol. After five months of hyperbolic chambers and other workout regimens, Kariya jumped from the 20th to the 80th percentile in brain function. Still, Amen echoed Lovell's sentiments: playing NHL hockey again would be foolhardy.
"There's still brain damage on the scan," Kariya said.
Even confronted with all that data, Kariya was until recently confident he could come back and play, given the lack of headaches and lack of pressure in his head.
"In the spring, when teams were calling, I was getting excited to play," he said.
Kariya suffered his first concussion in 1996, then another in 1998. In recent months, Lovell has shown Kariya his test results dating back to those first head blows. What Kariya doesn't have is his baseline test, a test showing his brain activity prior to the first concussion. "So, who knows what I was before," he said.
The bottom line, though, was each concussion brought a drop in brain function.
Kariya said he found an old article that appeared after his first concussion in 1996, when he took an elbow from Mathieu Schneider who was suspended for three games. At the time, Kariya said he lamented that those were the kinds of hits the league was trying to eliminate and a two-game suspension didn't cut it.
Two years later, Gary Suter was suspended two games for crosschecking Kariya in the face, giving Kariya his second concussion and leaving him unable to participate in the 1998 Olympics. Suter received a four-game suspension for the unprovoked attack.
When Kariya was concussed for the final time in late December 2009 after Buffalo's Patrick Kaleta delivered a blindside elbow to an unsuspecting Kariya, there was no suspension.
"It's been a little disappointing that, in the time I've been in the league, nothing much has been done to stop that," he said. "We shouldn't be having this conversation right now. To me, there's never been enough of a deterrent not to do it."
Like Pittsburgh owner and former 2002 Team Canada Olympic teammate Mario Lemieux, Kariya said he thinks it is important to go after the teams -- fining them, suspending coaches and levying significant suspensions on repeat offenders.
"That's how you get rid of that behavior," Kariya said.
And while he hasn't watched the sport much in recent months, he has kept up to date with what has been going on in the hockey landscape, especially as it relates to safety and concussions.
He has heard from league executive Brendan Shanahan, who will now oversee supplemental discipline as well as examine rules and overall workplace safety. (It's hard to imagine Kariya couldn't have a role in this area should he choose to make himself available.) Next season, along with a realignment of the league's disciplinary process, commissioner Gary Bettman has promised to introduce a series of fines for teams whose players are repeat offenders when it comes to dangerous plays.
As for the future, it's hard to believe Kariya cannot do exactly as he pleases, including a possible trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in three years.
"Obviously, playing a contact sport right now isn't in my best interests," he said with a laugh.
But he will continue to be physically active. He does 45 minutes of aerobics three days a week to keep his heart strong and help his brain continue to heal. He does yoga. And when he was working with Amen, he was given the choice of ping pong or ballroom dancing because of the mental stimulation both require.
Kariya chose ballroom dancing.
"It's probably the most difficult thing I've ever done," he confided.
So, is a spot on "Dancing With The Stars" in the offing?
"If you saw me dance, you would get the answer very quickly," Kariya said.
Feeling better than he has in ages, the Vancouver boy with the lightning hands and computer-like brain knows only this:
"Whatever it is I'm going to do, I'm going to need my brain to do it," he said. "I need to be able to function properly and be sharp."
If ever there was a player who sounded ready to embrace his future, it's Kariya. The shame of it is his future no longer includes what has thrilled so many fans for so long.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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