Skip to main content
The Official Site of the Calgary Flames

SECOND CRACK

Flames trip to China this fall comes 20 years after they played a pair of tilts in Japan to help grow the game internationally

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

As the travelling party, in various stages of sleep-deprivated stupor, stumbled off Japan Airlines Flight 15 at Narita International Airport on Oct. 8, 1998, following an 11-hour flight, a horde of Tokyo media, roughly 30 strong, met them at the gate.

They were all clamouring for a minute or two of one passenger's time.

Fleury-san. And only Fleury-san.

Stars are stars wherever you go. And this star was only too happy to oblige.

So Johnny Gaudreau best brace himself for a great wall of attention come mid-September.

With the announcement of the Flames returning to Asia for the 2018 O.R.G. NHL China Games on the two-decade anniversary of their first and only visit, a quick check back to that original adventure is in order.

The parameters of the Far East junkets are markedly different, of course.

The upcoming trip, with games slated for the 18,000-seat Universiade Centre in Shenzhen and Beijing's 14,100-seat Cadillac Arena, falls in pre-season, Sept. 15 and 19. The opponent, the Boston Bruins.

Then, the venue was Tokyo, regular-season, and the Yoyogi Sports Arena, Oct. 9-10. The opponent, the San Jose Sharks.

The Flames' first exotic trip abroad, of course, had been the Friendship Tour of the Czech Republic and Soviet Union, fresh off their Stanley Cup triumph in '89, when they went 3-3 in a series of highly-octane exhibition games. 

Originally, though, they hadn't even been the choice to face the boys in teal in the second instalment of the Game ONe! series nine years later in Japan.

Owing to an ownership imbroglio at the time, the Edmonton Oilers were forced to opt out, leaving their southern neighbours to step in to pinch-hit.

 

The games, season openers for both teams, were scheduled for Oct. 9-10. Tickets ran as high as $300 Cdn.

There certainly were hurdles to face.

The Yoyogi, renowned for its Star Wars suspension-style roof design, for starters. Built to house swimming and diving events during the 1964 Summer Olympics, a multi-height diving platform soared above the ice surface at one end of the building. 

Then there was the ice surface, constructed over an empty swimming pool. A huge portable refrigeration unit, brought over at not inconsiderable expense to improve ice quality, suffered damage en route from L.A. to Tokyo, one end crumpled like a discarded cigarette package after a typhoon hit the boat it was being transported on.

Frantic repairs got things right in time for puck-drop, luckily enough.

The Cavern Club (now, sadly, no more) in the hopping bar area of Rippongi featuring three sets of Beatles impersonators in different stages of the Fab Four's evolution proved a popular off-duty destination.

"Couldn't speak a word of English between them in conversation,"laughs Lanny McDonald now, a part of the traveling contingent back then, "but if you closed your eyes when they sang …"

Straight off the vinyl.

The show was so good that McDonald shelled out a few yen to buy a souvenir T-shirt at a seriously-understocked gift boutique.

"I don't think I still have that T-shirt,'' he says, nearly 20 years later. "And if I do, maybe I should throw it away."

 

Pre-trip, Flames' boss Brian Sutter didn't study Kurosawa films with subtitles to bone up on his Japanese. But he did manage to master do-zo and ariato.

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

All these years later, Sutter remembers those few days in sharp focus.

"It's what you make of it,'' he advises. "You go all the way to Japan, like we did, it can bring a group of people really close together.

"And if it can help grow our game, by all means.

"Certainly a unique opportunity, wondering what the crowds are going to be like, how the ice would hold up, standing there seeing that diving board at the end of the rink.

"I just wanted the players to enjoy everything. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"I'm sure this group of guys will view it the same way this time."

The opener ended in a 3-3 tie, the Sharks scoring late to steal a point.

In the second game, the next night, Fleury-san didn't disappoint the hordes of local fans outfitted in No. 14 signature jerseys, scoring three goals and adding a couple of helpers in a 5-3 win.

Attendance for the back-to-backs, on the heels of sellout crowds the year before when Anaheim and the Vancouver Canucks went to battle, were disappointing, though, at 8,400 and 7,100.

So the format was put on hold, and the Flames returned with three of a possible four points safely tucked away in their luggage.

Fleury - pre-figuring his country music days ahead - brought home a deluxe karaoke machine, others various electronic gadgets, kimonos and even a samurai sword or two.

Along, naturally, with a treasure-trove of memories.

"It was a pleasure,'' summed up the undisputed star of the show. "When people approached you, always 'thank you' and 'please.' Never 'Sign this!' Nobody shoving stuff in your face.

"They were just so happy to get your signature. Honestly happy. They respect you, respect your space and expect you to show them the same sort of respect.

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

View More