EX-FLAMES FONDLY RECALL BONDING ON JAPAN TRIP
Team opened ’98-’99 season with pair of games against Sharks in Tokyo
SHENZHEN, CHINA This isn’t the first time the Calgary Flames have been enlisted to help make a splash in a mostly-untapped hockey market.
The current cast — headlined by captain Mark Giordano, fan-favourite forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan and intriguing off-season additions such as Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm and James Neal — arrived Wednesday evening for an eight-day eye-opener in China.
Their itinerary includes a pair of exhibition showcases against the Boston Bruins, one in Shenzhen and the other in Beijing.
Although the circumstances and stakes are different, these road-trippers are in some ways following in the skate strides of the 1998-99 Flames, who opened their regular-season slate with back-toback contests against the San Jose Sharks in Tokyo, Japan.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” said former Flames head coach Brian Sutter, skipper for that other-side-of-the-globe getaway in October 1998. “When we went to Japan, the first thing I’ll never forget is we went to the stadium and Al (Chopper) MacNeil and I are standing there, and we look over the ice surface and there’s this huge frickin’ board sticking out over the end of it. Apparently, it was a swimming pool or some darn thing before.
“I remember Chopper saying, ‘I wonder which one of us is going to jump off there?’ I was just standing there laughing.”
Hockey players, like all professional athletes, thrive on routine.
Certainly, that jaunt to Japan seemed like a plunge into uncharted waters, and not just because there was a 10-metre diving platform at one end of Yoyogi Arena, venue for the aquatic events at the 1964 Summer Olympics.
“It was just so different being on a trip like that,” recalled defenceman Todd Simpson, Calgary’s captain that winter and now a successful realtor in Kelowna. “The travel day was a long day, that’s for sure. We were on a commercial flight, but we kind of had a section to ourselves. I remember at least once or twice, we had a team stretch on the plane. We’d never done that before.”
The Flames’ trip to Tokyo came on the heels of the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, the first to feature the National Hockey League’s biggest stars.
Next up as host of the Winter Games is Beijing, on deck for 2022.
Although NHL participation is no sure thing, perhaps a guy like Gaudreau or left-wing cohort Matthew Tkachuk — both would likely be shoo-ins for Team USA based on their current trajectory — will be back in China for that tournament.
For most of the Flames, though, this will be a once-in-lifetime excursion.
“I look back on those memories and those experiences with really fond thoughts,” said franchise legend Theo Fleury, who racked up a half-dozen points on that two-game trek to Tokyo and was the Flames’ far-and-away scoring leader during the 1998-99 season before being swapped to the Colorado Avalanche in late February.
“Of course, we’d all have loved to be in Calgary to start the season and be in front of our fans. But I think that opportunity was incredible and amazing. I would have never got to see all the cool electronics that were out at the time if I didn’t go to Japan. I fell in love with sushi. I’d never eaten sushi until we went to Japan, and now I eat it at least once or twice a week.
“It was just really cool, and I think China is a great market for the NHL to explore.”
After months of preparations, the Flames — travelling by charter, not commercial flight — touched down in Shenzhen at about 7 p.m. local time Wednesday, during the early hours of the morning back home.
They have a pair of practice sessions in the lead-up to Saturday’s matinee at Shenzhen Universiade Sports Center and will skate twice more before a rematch next Wednesday at Cadillac Arena in Beijing. In between, they’ll also visit the Great Wall of China.
With a new head coach in Bill Peters and after a summer of roster upheaval, the Flames have been preaching the importance of this junket to establish an identity — and a bond — as a team.
Still, the scores won’t matter much.
For the ’98-99 edition, that two-game set in Tokyo actually counted.
Valeri Bure and Jason Wiemer each collected a goal and an assist in the opener and Andrew Cassels also tickled twine for the crew from Calgary, but they settled for a 3-3 tie after San Jose’s Mike Ricci buried the equalizer with just over two minutes remaining in regulation.
Fleury was the difference-maker the next night, notching a hattrick and providing two helpers to power the Flames to a 5-3 victory. Derek Morris and Dave Roche were the other marksmen, while Ken Wregget kicked aside 23 shots to earn his first ‘W’ with his new squad.
(Jarome Iginla, a third-year forward who would eventually shred the franchise scoring records, was skunked on that sojourn.)
Nobody jumped from the diving board — Harvey the Hound did, for the record, tip-toe to the edge — but the Flames would eventually sink in the standings, finishing six points outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference.
“We were playing San Jose, and they were pretty good back then. And we weren’t,” Simpson said. “But the first two games of the season, we tied and we won, so we were feeling really good about ourselves. We had a good trip back and we were thinking we were the real deal.
“And then we had our homeopener against Toronto, and you can look it up, I think we were down, like, 4-0 after 10 minutes. It was just a disaster. We had almost a week off, so I don’t think it was jet-lag. We just weren’t as good as we thought we were.
“That was back when we probably had a $12-million payroll, and that was in Canadian dollars. Detroit was probably spending $75 million American.”
Two decades later and with those small-market woes now behind them, the Flames will be snuggling with the salary-cap ceiling this season.
Calgary’s general manager, Brad Treliving, certainly didn’t sit on his wallet this summer.
He welcomed a couple of couldbe keys — Lindholm and Hanifin, aged 23 and 21, respectively — in a blockbuster trade with the Carolina Hurricanes and then locked up both on near-identical six-year contract extensions. (Lindholm, an option at either centre or on right wing, will earn an average of US$4.85 million per season, with his blue-line buddy Hanifin just a smidgen richer at $4.95 million per annum.)
Treliving ’s spending spree also included a five-year, US$28.75-million payday for Neal, a prized free-agent addition who has lost in the Stanley Cup final in consecutive springs — with the Nashville Predators and then the Vegas Golden Knights — and is hell-bent on having his name engraved on that trophy. The 31-year-old has been a consistent scoring threat, with 20-plus tallies in each of his 10 big-league campaigns.
The Flames also signed faceoff ace Derek Ryan — finally, a righthanded centre — and breakout candidate Austin Czarnik, a 25-year-old winger who finished third in the American Hockey League scoring race last winter.
The other newbies on Calgary’s roster for the O.R.G. China Games are rearguard Dalton Prout and forward Anthony Peluso, two tough customers in the mix for depth roles.
And what better way for all of these guys to get buddy-buddy than a couple of marathon flights and some bumper-to-bumper busrides through cities that should make Calgary seem like a wee whistle-stop? (Beijing ’s population is north of 20 million, while Shenzhen is about two-thirds that size).
“People talk about the long plane ride over … That’s all a crock. It’s over-rated,” Sutter said. “You look back at when you’re a player, that was the time you became extremely close — on plane flights and on bus trips.
“You hear about teams having the bond, and I think this is great for the Flames because you have a bunch of new guys there, along with a new coaching staff. It just gives time for everybody to be together. There’s nothing that’s more important for a winning team than a bunch of guys that want to be together and care for each other and lean on each other.
“Some teams never understand that,” continued Sutter, still active behind the bench with the seniorlevel Innisfail Eagles. “But teams that win understand how important it is to have a close-knit group. There are no excuses when you go on a trip like this for the guys not to be together. You’re in a new part of the world, but everybody is in it together, and I’m sure the coaches are quite excited about it.
“There is a good group of people there, and you have to win off the ice before you win on the ice. This is the start of it.”
Teams that win understand how important it is to have a close-knit group. There are no excuses when you go on a trip like this for the guys not to be together.
Former Flames Jarome Iginla, left, and Cale Hulse (hand onto the handrails) rode the subway train back to their hotel after spending a little time sightseeing in Tokyo. Valeri Bure and Marty McInnis can be seen background. The Flames opened the 1998 season in the Japanese capital with a pair of games against the San Jose Sharks. This year, the Flames will battle the Bruins in China.
The Sharks’ Mike Vernon gives a high stick to Calgary’s Cory Stillman during the second of two games the teams played in Tokyo in October, 1998 to open the regular season. The Flames are playing the Bruins in exhibition games in Shenzhen, China on Saturday and in Beijing on Wednesday.