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Puckish Spirit The Black Bear turned NHL star says there's nothing like Maine hockey

When SI asked me to write an essay about Maine, I jumped at the
chance. I lived there only a year and a half, during my three
semesters at the University of Maine in Orono, in 1992 and '93.
But in that short time I fell in love with the state. My first
year there was unforgettable, the greatest period of my life in
terms of personal growth. Certainly the Kariya family embraced
Maine. My brothers, Steve and Martin, both professional hockey
players, also went to the university, and one of my sisters,
Noriko, played field hockey for the Black Bears. That's 13 1/2
years' worth of Kariyas, if you add us up. ¶ I'm not trying to
flatter Mainers (they aren't very big on that), but as I see it
the state is one of a kind. Here are three of the reasons I
became a Mainer at heart:

--THE NATURAL BEAUTY My hometown of Vancouver has mountains and
coastline and fog, but Maine is special. In the fall we would sit
staring out of the window during bus trips to games. You know how
athletes always have something smart to say? On those trips none
of us would say anything except to express our wonder at the
colors. I also loved the Maine snow. I used to walk from my dorm
to Alfond Arena, maybe 10 or 15 minutes, in the snow for a game
on a Friday night and think, "Ah, this is hockey." Ruined my only
pair of dress shoes.

--THE FOOD Lobster, sure. Sometimes they even served it in the
cafeteria. But everyone knows Maine lobster. They don't know the
buffalo wings at Legend's, which was one of the college hangouts
in Orono when I was there--and actually affected my hockey
career. When Boston University was recruiting me, they took me to
the Cheers bar and a Bruins-Kings game at Boston Garden. Maine
took me to Legend's for those wings, which just about clinched
it. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention Pat's Pizza in Orono.
Greasy. Thin crust. When I close my eyes, I can still taste their
pepperoni pizza.

--THE PEOPLE I showed up in Orono with a suitcase, my hockey gear,
a sleeping bag and $200 in my wallet. I wasn't quite 18. I was
coming from across the continent. And people couldn't have made
me feel more welcome. I got to know a lot of families in the
community. When my father, T.K., died during last season, one of
the first calls I got was from Bob Bazinet, who was like my
surrogate father when I was in Orono.

Maybe it's because a Maine winter is pretty bleak, or maybe it
has to do with the Black Bears' two national championships and 12
appearances in the Frozen Four, but sometimes we seemed more like
a franchise than a college team. Our coach, Shawn Walsh, forged a
great tradition in Orono, and almost every player who went
through the program responded with intense loyalty. Coach Walsh
had a great presence, a wonderful way about him. Whenever we
would travel as a group, he would make sure everybody got up and
spoke. By the end of the season even the most tongue-tied
freshman had gained the confidence to speak in public. Coach
Walsh touched so many of us.

Mainers love hockey. NHL guys from BC and BU tell me they were
actually a little scared when they played at Maine. We had a
terrific team in 1992-93--our goalies were Mike Dunham and Garth
Snow--and our fans were always on the visitors. Now I'm playing
in 20,000-seat arenas in the NHL, and the atmosphere isn't the
same. Those 5,500 in Maine felt like more than 20,000. And the
fans genuinely cared about the outcome and about us.

I remember landing in Bangor after we'd won the 1993 NCAA
championship in Milwaukee. It was a 15-minute drive to campus,
and there were people on the overpasses with signs congratulating
us and cars honking their horns. There was a pep rally in the gym
afterward. I never heard a rink louder.

I never feel like a visitor when I go back to Maine. I've always
thought of the state as one of my homes. In the truest sense, I
grew up there.

Colorado Avalanche winger Paul Kariya, a seven-time NHL All-Star,
won the Hobey Baker Award at Maine in 1993.