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37 FOR 37: THE JAPAN TRIP

The Flames' trip to Japan was filled with adventures on and off the ice

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

Three diving boards perched at one end of the facility.

Now there's something you don't see every night at an NHL game.

Yoyogi Arena, though, had been built in 1964 as the swimming and diving venue for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

And on Oct. 9 and 10 of 1998, Yoyogi hosted the second instalment of the GAME ONe! festival, designed to promote the NHL brand in Japan.

"Hey,'' joked Flames' star Theoren Fleury, peering up at the 3-metre board for the first time, "if you climb up on one of those things and jump, do you get two minutes for diving?"

The Flames - late pinch-hitters for the Edmonton Oilers, who backed out - faced the San Jose Sharks in a follow up to the previous year's Vancouver-Anaheim two-game visit, and featured a coaching clash between Sutter brothers, Brian (Flames) and Darryl (Sharks).

Not everyone was executing cartwheels over a 15-hour journey and re-acclimatization process later with valuable regular-season points at stake, both in Tokyo and upon return.

"Ridiculous,'' fumed Sharks' centre Bernie Nicholls when asked about the junket. "Absolutely (bleep)ing ridiculous."

Others such as Brian Sutter had done their due diligence. Prior to boarding Japan Airlines Flight 15 for the 15-hour journey, the oldest of the hockey-playing clan had at least learned to pronounce "do-zo" and "arigato".

"Please and thank you,'' he explained, "are the two most important things you can say in any language."

Three Flames - Fleury (Canada), defenceman Tommy Albelin (Sweden) and winger Val Bure (Russia) - had all participated in the Nagano Winter Olympics a few months earlier and understood the challenges involved in a Japan junket.

Top per-game ticket prices clocked in at $260 in a nosediving economy. Some 21 Calgarians, outfitted in Flaming C gear, made the long trek to take in the games.

There were immediate technical issues. For instance: the boat carting a huge refrigeration unit designed to maintain ice quality ran into a typhoon en route from L.A. to Tokyo and suffered major damage to one side, requiring quick repair.

The games themselves, played on back-to-back nights, ended in a 1-1 tie followed by a 5-3 Flames victory, thanks to a Fleury hat-trick.

They drew 8,400 and 9,000 spectators to the 10,000-seat venue. Not enough to prompt a continuation of the GAME ONe! concept.

What remained were the memories:

Of Harvey the Hound looking to scale the 3-metre diving tower during one game and NHL PR man Arthur Pincus, in a high state of dudgeon, screaming: "Get that --ing dog off that board!"

Of the atmospheric Cavern Club in the trendy Rippongi club district, where three sets of Beatles cover bands - who didn't otherwise understand a lick of English - performed a series of Fab Four classics so expertly that if you closed your eyes …

Of Harvey again, in full dog regalia, ambling aboard a commuter train at rush hour and no one in the jam-packed car paying him the slightest bit of attention.

"It was,'' said Fleury, the undisputed star of the show, "a pleasure. When people approached you, it was never 'Sign this!' Nobody shoving stuff in your face.

"They respect you, respect your space and expect you to show them the same sort of respect back.

"Now is that a basis for living, or what?"

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