Kariya's development into a top-tier player came from his devotion to the game and the support of his sporting family. Of Japanese descent, Paul was born and raised in North Vancouver, British Columbia. His father, Tetsuhiko, toured for several years with the Canadian national rugby team. Paul took to the ice early, beginning at age three as a figure skater and then as a hockey player a year later. He had an instinctual balance on skates and excelled as a youngster, moving easily around the ice while the other kids struggled to stay upright. He moved up quickly and began playing with older players, listening to his father who coached him as an under-aged Atom.
Though a diminutive player, Kariya was head-and-shoulders above the competition as a 15-year-old. He made the trek north to Penticton, a hockey factory that produced such stars as Andy Moog and Brett Hull, and with the Panthers he was able to attend a high quality school, which his parents always stressed. Kariya was the youngest of the 170 teenagers trying out for the Penticton Panthers, a new team in the BCJHL. Not only did he make the team, but he was voted its captain. The Panthers struggled, but Kariya averaged almost two points a game on his way to winning Junior Player-of-the-Year honors in the province.
Halfway through the next season, Kariya was selected to play for Canada in the World Junior Championships in Germany, joining another much talked about junior, Eric Lindros. The two became friends during the tournament and Lindros, seeing that the smaller player was exhausted and sick after so many games, suggested Kariya take a break when he returned. Kariya did not heed the advice and became sicker. He collapsed just before an All-Star game and was diagnosed with mononucleosis. He returned after missing 12 games and led the Panthers to respectability. Kariya finished his final junior season with 132 points and was chosen the top junior player in Canada.
Kariya received scholarship offers from all over the United States, as well as a lucrative deal to play in the WHL with the Tri-City Americans. He decided to further his education and play for the University of Maine Black Bears in the United States collegiate ranks. In his first season, 1992-93, Maine was chosen the pre-season favorite to win the national championship. Fans filled the arena for practices and the Black Bears did not disappoint, losing only one game in the regular season. Kariya had 93 points and won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation's top player, the first freshman to win that honor. The day after winning the award, he led a third period comeback against Lake Superior State to secure the national title for Maine.
That summer, Kariya was selected 4th overall at the NHL Entry Draft by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, but one of Kariya's dreams was to play for Canada in the Olympics, an assignment the Mighty Duck management agreed might help the winger ready himself for the pro game. He began his season with Maine and then joined the Canadian Olympic team as it readied itself for the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway. After a strong exhibition schedule, Kariya was Team Canada's top scorer in the tournament with four assists and three goals, including an overtime winner against the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. In the gold medal game, the final event of the Olympics, Canada and Sweden had to go to a sudden-death shootout to decide the winner. After five shooters for both teams, including Kariya, who scored one of Canada's two goals, the teams were still deadlocked. In the sudden death encore Kariya had to score to keep Canada's chances alive after Peter Forsberg scored on a nifty deke. However, Swedish keeper Tommy Salo made an acrobatic save on Kariya's close-in shot to win the game and the gold for Sweden.
Despite the disappointment, watched by millions of Canadians, Kariya rebounded to give everyone a taste of what was to come in 47 games with the Mighty Ducks and as a member of Canada's entry in the World Cup. The next season, 1995-96, he exploded for 108 points in his first full year in the NHL. It was a pace he would continue over the following three seasons, collecting 227 points in 220 games.
In February 1996 Kariya was named a starter for the All-Star Game. He was still in awe of his fellow stars, making comments to that effect to the man he stood next to during the introductions, Winnipeg's high scoring Teemu Selanne. Three weeks later Kariya became more familiar with the talented Finn when the Mighty Ducks made a trade with Winnipeg to bring Selanne to Anaheim. Selanne had the speed and goal-scoring touch to take advantage of Kariya's innate ability to find the open man. The twosome formed a dangerous and fast combination, often teaming with center Steve Rucchin who, like Kariya, was a product of the post-secondary hockey system, joining the team after starring at the University of Western Ontario.
Anaheim was improving but still had not made the playoffs during Kariya's stay when the 1996-97 season began. Kariya, named the team's captain, missed the first 11 games of the season due to injury, and his importance to the Mighty Ducks became apparent. The team won only one game during his absence. When he returned, Anaheim began to climb in the standings, earning a playoff spot by the end of the season. Kariya scored an overtime goal to keep the team alive in the first round against the Phoenix Coyotes as the Ducks rallied to advance to the next round in seven games. The Detroit Red Wings, the eventual Stanley Cup champions, had too much depth for Anaheim in the conference semifinals, sending the upstarts from the West home in four games. Kariya's 99 points in his shortened season and Anaheim's success ensured his name was among the final three considered for the Hart Trophy as the league's Most Valuable Player.
Just before he was to play in the 1998 All-Star Game, Kariya sustained his fourth concussion in a nasty incident involving Chicago's Gary Suter. Kariya never lost consciousness and could remember the details of the game. Only later did he feel the effects of the hit, the headaches and the memory loss. He missed the rest of the season and the Nagano Olympics because of post-concussion syndrome.
He returned to form the next season. Terrorizing defenders and goalies with Selanne, Kariya finished third in overall scoring in 1998-99.
In the summer of 2002, he was one of the original eight players named to Canada's Olympic Team. Kariya played alongside Mario Lemieux at Salt Lake City, and helped power the Canadians to the gold medal with three goals and an assist.
Following a sub-par 2001-02 regular season in Anaheim, Kariya and the Ducks were looking to get back on the right track, and they did so with Kariya finishing the regular season with 81 points on the strength of 25 goals and 56 assists while the Ducks qualified for the post season for the first time since 1998-99. Not only did they qualify, but they reached the Stanley Cup Final only to lose to the New Jersey Devils in a hard-fought seven game series.
After nine seasons in Anaheim, the former Hobey Baker winner was acquired by the Colorado Avalanche in the summer of 2003. Upon his arrival with the Avs, Kariya went on to play a mere 51 games with the club due to injury and subsequently signed as a free agent with the Nashville Predators in the summer of 2005.
In Nashville, Kariya was a steady offensive threat recording 55 goals and 161 points over 164 games. However, the club opted not to re-sign the left winger in the off-season. On July 1st, 2007 Kariya signed a three-year deal with the St. Louis Blues.