NHL Prepares to Take The Big Show to Japan
By Carol Schram, Vancouver Corespondent
At a press conference in Vancouver on March 26 before the Canucks/Mighty Ducks contest that night, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that those two teams would open their 1997-98 NHL regular seasons with a two game series at the 10,000-seat Yoyogi Arena in Tokyo, Japan. This marks the first time that regular season games will be played outside of North America, and will serve as a warmup for the 1998 Winter Olympics in February in Nagano, Japan -- the first-ever Olympics involving active NHL players.
The reasoning behind the selection of the Mighty Ducks to participate in this series is obvious enough. Their Captain, Paul Kariya, is Canadian, but his father is of Japanese descent. He is said to already be a popular commodity among Japanese sports fans. In addition, the Disney name and image travels well globally. There is an Asian Disneyland just outside of Tokyo, and that wacky Mighty Ducks logo is popular all around the world, particularly in the Land of the Rising Sun -- or so the NHL head offices would like to have us believe.
Much has been made of the decision to choose Vancouver as the Ducks' opponents in this series, but there are some logical reasons for the selection. In the first place, Vancouver is a legitimate Pacific Rim city, with strong ties to Japan, Hong Kong, China, and other countries in South East Asia. Vancouver has a significant Japanese population, and it is also a popular destination for Japanese residents for vacations and weddings. In fact, Vancouver's Parks Board has recently issued a decree requiring wedding parties to obtain permits for photo sessions in the city's parks, largely because of frequent and extensive wedding pictures by the Japanese. Using teams from the west coast also minimizes the already-extensive travel involved in traveling to Japan, and the selection of Vancouver emphasizes that both Canada and the U.S. are important home countries for the National Hockey League. Also, while the Ducks are headed up by former Canuck assistant Ron Wilson and there is generally a healthy camaraderie between the two squads, the fact that Vancouver is Paul Kariya's home town always seems to lend a little extra jump to his play when he faces the Canucks. Finally, barring any significant deals over the summer, the Japanese will have a chance to see Bure, Mogilny, Kariya, and Selanne -- four of the league's most explosive offensive threats, who should star for three different Olympic teams come February.
Following training camp and their regular exhibition schedule, the Canucks and Ducks will travel to Tokyo on September 29, arriving on the 30th. They will acclimatize to the time change from October 1-3, practicing daily and participating in clinics and other promotional activities. The games will be played at noon Tokyo time on October 4 and 5, which means they will run live on North America's west coast at 8:00 p.m. the night before. Hockey Night in Canada and ESPN2 are tentatively scheduled to carry the games in North America, and negotiations are currently underway to set up cable and satellite distribution for most of Asia.
The NHL's participation in the Canada Cup and World Cup series is well known, but the history of actual NHL squads suiting up on other continents dates back nearly 40 years. In May of 1959, the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers undertook a 23-game tour of Europe, with stops in Paris, London, Berlin, and Zurich. The Rangers bolstered their roster for that series by adding Bobby Hull and Eddie Shack to the lineup. In 1980, Washington and Minnesota played in the DN Cup in Stockholm, Sweden, as part of their pre-season tuneup. The Caps returned for an encore performance in 1981 along with the New York Rangers, and also played in Finland as part of their pre-season that year.
In September of 1989, the Capitals and the Calgary Flames undertook a pre-season "Friendship Tour" of the Soviet Union against Soviet National League teams. The squads suited up for games in Kiev, Leningrad (St. Petersberg), Riga, and Moscow. Then in 1990, the Montreal Canadiens and Minnesota North Stars headed for Russia, while the St. Louis Blues and Edmonton Oilers competed in West Germany for the Epson Cup, and the Oilers went on to play additional games in Austria. In September of 1992, the Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens marked the first faceoff of NHL teams against each other on foreign soil in more than 30 years as they played two exhibition games at Wembley Arena in London. The New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs duplicated that event the following season. Then, in September of 1994, the Winnipeg Jets competed in the NIKE International Challenge in Helsinki against teams from the Finnish League. Now, with the critical Olympic year on the horizon, the NHL has decided that it needs the lure of regular season NHL games to truly "bring its product" to a more global audience.
The cost of the trip and event is being underwritten by the NHL and Dentsu Sports Marketing of Japan, with the support of the NHL Players Association, the Japan Ice Hockey Federation, and the Nagano Olympics Committee. The two teams will each be reimbursed for the cost of dropping one home game from their schedule -- and with the cost of living in Japan, ticket holders all around the NHL can breathe a sigh of relief that they don't have to pay prices like those that will likely be charged in Tokyo.
While it was certainly a part of Gary Bettman's mandate when he was hired as commissioner to bring increased exposure to NHL hockey, it is ironic that the announcement of the NHL's foray into Japan should come on the same day as Hartford Whalers' ownership quietly announced that they had been unable to come to terms with the state and would be paying a significant fine to leave Connecticut by the beginning of the 1997-98 season. When asked if he was concerned about the fall of yet another smaller-market franchise, this time in America, Gary Bettman had a simple, smug answer: "WHA". He looked almost satisfied that this weak sister would finally be put to rest, and if part of his hidden agenda is to eliminate all former WHA cities absorbed in the NHL expansion, then the message is clear enough -- no matter how good your year is right now, watch out Oiler fans, you're next.
Certainly, the Whalers have struggled for years, largely because of their inadequate playing facility, but while Bettman's eyes grow large at the thought of selling global cable and marketing rights to his NHL product, it is sad that he can't stop to shed a tear for the long-term hockey fans who are, at the very least, disturbed by the changing face of their game.
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