It was thirteen years ago that the Predators opened their season in Japan with two games against the Pittsburgh Penguins. What similarity did that team have to the current edition of the Predators?
Scott Hartnell, the team’s first round draft pick that year made the team out of training camp at 18 years of age. Until this season, when Seth Jones made it as well, Hartnell was the only Nashville entry draft selection to start the season “with the big club.”
The trip to Japan was finalized during the previous season as the Predators, who won 28 games, were evidently set to be the “Washington Generals” against the Pittsburgh Penguins, or “Harlem Globetrotters.” For a glimpse at how the series of two games was promoted in Japan, check out this story from the Japan Times.
Even the ESPN Promotional announcements took on the same flavor, if not Red Klotz’s Washington Generals, the Predators were being treated like Rodney (“I don’t get any respect”) Dangerfield.
That Penguins team was without owner Mario Lemieux at the time (though he would make a successful comeback in December), but it was packed with offensive talent: Jaromir Jagr (who would lead the league in scoring with 121 points), along with Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka and Robert Lang, each of whom had 80 or more points.
When owner Lemieux got back in his skates, he tallied 76 points in just 43 games and that Penguins team made it to the Eastern Conference Final, where they lost to the New Jersey Devils.
Contrast that to the Predators, who would rank 28th offensively and 7th defensively. Cliff Ronning led the team with 62 points. Scott Walker was tops with 25 goals. Mike Dunham and Tomas Vokoun split team duties in goals.
Had that trip been scheduled for the fall of 2001, it is highly unlikely it ever would have been made, so soon after the September 11th attacks on the United States.
The two games were the first major events held at the Saitama Super Arena, an incredibly versatile facility that can be used as either an indoor arena or outdoor stadium. Depending upon configuration, it can seat between 5,000 and 37,000 people.
As things developed, Cliff Ronning scored the first goal in the building and the Predators took the first game, 3-1. The Penguins won the second game by the same score. While ESPN carried the telecasts, Terry Crisp and I had the radio call, with the faceoffs coming shortly after midnight Nashville time (there was a 15-hour time difference, so some of us wore two watches, one on Japan time, the other on Central time.)
It was an incredible training camp and season opener for the Predators. The Predators had Japanese defenseman Yujiro Nakajimaya in their camp. “Yuji” played for the Kukodo Bunnies of the Japanese League, and would turn 30 shortly after the conclusion of the trip.
Acting as a de facto ambassador of Japanese hockey, he played in a pre-season game in Nashville.
He was small even for the Predators’ team at the time, at 5-10 and weighing around 150 pounds. He then accompanied the team back to his native Japan and was given a thunderous ovation by the fans at the Saitama Arena.
It was an incredible trip for the entire traveling party, visiting the Ginza in Tokyo and some took in Japanese baseball games as well.
The Penguins and Predators flew back to North America together, from Tokyo’s Norita Airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul before parting ways. All in all, it was 14 hours in the air again, crossing the International Dateline, and an exhausted group slowly deplaned at Nashville International Airport.
After about five days were allowed for recovery, the Predators opened with home games on back-to-back nights, beating Washington and Carolina, to start the season 3-1.
Yes, all of that with an 18-year old rookie in the line-up. 13 years later, Scott Hartnell has done alright playing 875 games!