EX-FLAMES FONDLY RE­CALL BOND­ING ON JA­PAN TRIP

Team opened ’98-’99 sea­son with pair of games against Sharks in Tokyo

Calgary Herald - - SPORTS - WES GILBERTSON wgilbert­[email protected]

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.

PHO­TOS: DAVE OLECKO/FILES

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.

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