ON THE early August day when Paul Kariya decided he would play for the Nashville Predators, his agent, Don Baizley, telephoned the general managers of the half dozen or so other teams that had been courting Kariya to inform them of the left wing's choice. The news was greeted, universally, with a second or two of stunned silence, as if Baizley had just said that Kariya planned to try out for the national team of Mars, before the G.M.'s began sputtering in question marks and italics.
Predators general manager David Poile has himself often heard the question, Why Nashville?--not in wonderment over why a studious and charismatic seven-time All-Star would enlist with so anonymous a franchise, but in the existential context of why the NHL even has a team in a mid-Tennessee market of 1.2 million people. "Small market, low payroll," Poile says. "During the lockout we were symptomatic in a lot of people's minds of what was not right in the National Hockey League. Well, Paul Kariya chose Nashville, and the reason is that he did his homework." Among the glut of name players who changed addresses in the madcap, postlockout summer of 2005, none promises to have a greater impact on his team, on and off the ice, than Kariya.
The two-year, $9 million marriage is inspired, if you really think about it. The Predators were already of postseason caliber. They were built, to Kariya's taste, around speed. They had an emerging goalie in Tomas Vokoun. They had a superb defenseman, Marek Zidlicky, who keenly grasps the geometry of hockey and the possibilities of open ice. They had smarts and stability in Barry Trotz, the only coach in franchise history. And Nashville's money was as green as any team's.
Kariya, who had spent nine seasons with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and one with the Colorado Avalanche, methodically weighed these factors, bouncing the sacrilege of Nashville off hockey friends, Colorado's Joe Sakic and Detroit's Brendan Shanahan among them. "Maybe you don't think of hockey when you think of Nashville," Kariya says. "But if you're inside hockey and you look at the team and situation, it should make perfect sense. For me it's all about the hockey. Everyone I've talked to likes it here. But you know me, I could live in a box." (Incidentally, his new, 5,000-square-foot box, 10 minutes from Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Center, cost substantially less than did his 1,800-square-foot condo in Anaheim.)
Wrist and thumb injuries limited Kariya to 11 goals and 25 assists in 51 games with Colorado in 2003-04. But with Anaheim in '02-03 he was the NHL's second-team All-Star. Now the two-time Olympian, who turns 31 on Oct. 16, is in fine position to reignite a career in which he has averaged 1.07 points per game. "Getting a top player that can take us to a higher level was first and foremost," says Poile, who arranged for Kariya to speak directly to owner Craig Leipold on the first day of the signing period. "But almost as important was finding someone our market could identify with."
Kariya becomes the face of the NHL's version of a Witness Protection Program, a role that had defaulted to plucky winger Scott Walker, who among Walkers probably trailed Jerry Jeff and Herschel in recognizability in Tennessee. The once promising NHL foray into Nashville was turning into a country-music song--except that fans were leaving instead of the missus. The season-ticket base of 12,000 that bought the Predators a seat at the NHL's ever-expanding table in 1998-99 had shrunk by nearly half. And Leipold had balked at spending on free agents merely to appease fans, vowing to invest when the economic system, the dollars and the player made sense. The confluence of a new collective bargaining agreement, the chance to get the appealing Kariya at a generous but manageable $4.5 million annually and a $28 million payroll that still allows Nashville to dip into revenue sharing proved just the ticket. In the week after Kariya's Aug. 5 signing, the Predators sold 500 season plans.
The marketing people know what they'd like to do with Kariya: throw him out there every shift. But Trotz has the task of finding linemates--ideally, a speedy right wing and an intuitive center--to maximize Kariya's skills. "You need an intelligent player with him, because Paul's smart and doesn't do things the same way every time," says Trotz. "He's all about getting separation [from the defender], giving and going, quick thinking and quick movement. You have to be able to adjust."
If the Predators find a complementary center who can think as far outside the box as Kariya did in coming to what was the end of the hockey earth, those question marks about Nashville will be replaced by exclamation points. --M.F.