Steve Kariya’s University of Maine hockey career didn’t get off to the start he wanted.
Due to NCAA violations, the Black Bears were prohibited from playing in the NCAA tournament his first two seasons.
“When I signed on with Maine, one of the many reasons I did was to try to compete for a national title,” said Kariya. “To be on one of the top teams in the country and to have that taken away from me and my teammates was difficult. Those two teams were pretty good teams, especially my sophomore year when (suspended head coach Shawn Walsh) came back and we ran over everyone including Boston University.”
Walsh returned from his one-year suspension at the halfway mark of the 1996-1997 season, relieving assistant/interim head coach Greg Cronin, and the Black Bears went 15-3 down the stretch including a sweep of BU, which went on to play in the NCAA championship game.
UMaine went 26-9-4 during Kariya’s freshman season and 24-10-1 his sophomore year.
But better days were ahead.
After a subpar 1997-1998 season in which the Black Bears went 17-15-4 and failed, though eligible, to qualify for the NCAA tournament, the Black Bears claimed their second NCAA championship his senior year with a 3-2 overtime win over archrival New Hampshire in the title game at Anaheim, California.
“Going through that adversity, those ups-and-downs, personally and team-wise, was a great lesson for all of us,” said Kariya. “To go out and win a national championship and bring the program back to prominence, so to speak, was obviously very gratifying for all of us.
“I definitely have no regrets or hard feelings about it. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. It not only helped my hockey career, it made me a better person,” added Kariya.
He noted that another gratifying aspect of the national championship was the fact the Black Bears had far fewer scholarships than their opponents due to the ongoing NCAA sanctions.
“We certainly weren’t the best team in college hockey history but as far as character and team chemistry and how we played together was concerned, you could argue we were one of the best in those departments,” said Kariya.
Kariya was a first-team All-Hockey East pick and a Hobey Baker finalist during the 1998-1999 season as he registered 27 goals and 38 assists.
UMaine was swept at New Hampshire to end the regular season, swept Massachusetts in the quarterfinals, then lost to Boston College 3-2 in the Hockey East semifinals.
But the Black Bears beat Ohio State and Clarkson in the NCAA East Regional and avenged the loss to BC in the Frozen Four semifinals when Bobby Stewart scored in overtime to give UMaine a 2-1 victory.
Marcus Gustafsson was the hero in the national championship game, converting his own rebound off a Cory Larose pass in overtime.
“Collectively, we had the resolve to come together. There were some great individual performances from guys like Alfie (goalie Alfie Michaud), Bobby Stewart and Marcus Gustafsson. Again that speaks to the strength and character of the team,” said Kariya.
The energetic and vociferous fans at Alfond Arena was one of the things that attracted Kariya to UMaine and he has fond memories of playing there.
“Alfond Arena was unique. You had the student section in the balcony on top of the ice. It was a great atmosphere,” said Kariya.
Kariya, the middle of three Kariya brothers to play at UMaine along with older brother and Hobey Baker Award winner Paul and younger brother Martin, is the school’s No. 7 career scorer with 187 points(78 goals, 109 assists) in 150 games.
The North Vancouver, British Columbia, native went on to have an 11-year pro career including 65 games in the National Hockey League.
“I never dreamed of having a professional career before I want to Maine,” said Kariya. “Without the help of Shawn and Grant (assistant Grant Standbrook) and the other coaches as well as my teammates, I certainly never would have been able to play professionally.”
Kariya, who lives in Vancouver, previously worked as a scout with the New Jersey Devils but recently has been spending a lot of time with his family. He also has taken up curling.
He is unable to attend the hockey program’s 40th anniversary celebration this weekend because of a previous commitment, but he continues to follow the team.
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