“It’s fucking ridiculous,” said then San Jose Sharks center Bernie Nicholls in an Oct. 1998 interview with Tony Cooper of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Two NHL teams playing in Japan, why are we going over there? It’s not fair to the organizations. My question is why?”
CREATION OF NHL GAME ONE
At a press conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, on March 26, 1997, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced the Vancouver Canucks and the then Mighty Ducks of Anaheim would open the 1997-98 NHL regular season with a two game set at Yoyogi Arena in Tokyo, Japan.
The games, which were the first regular season games to be played outside of North America, were part of the league’s Game ONe enterprise to increase exposure of the NHL brand and give the Japanese fans a preview of what they could expect at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, which would feature participation from active NHL players for the first time ever.
After the tremendous success of Game ONe ’97, Bettman announced at the tail end of the Nagano Winter Olympics that the NHL would return to Japan to open the 1998-99 regular season. The two teams selected to particiapte in the two-game set were the Sharks and the Calgary Flames.
REACTION IN SAN JOSE
The league’s selection of the Sharks and Flames for Game ONe ’98 caught many in the hockey realm by surprise. The Mighty Ducks and Canucks were logical choices for Game ONe ’97 with then Anaheim superstar Paul Kariya being of Japanese decent and Vancouver being a legitimate Pacific Rim city.
But the Sharks and Flames? The only history these two teams had with each other at the time was their epic seven game series in the first round of the 1995 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which saw the eighth seeded Sharks eliminate the top seeded Flames in double overtime of game seven in Calgary.
Perhaps the league was interested in a brother versus brother showdown as Darryl Sutter was the head coach of the Sharks at the time and Brian Sutter was the coach of the Flames? Whatever the league’s reasons were, it was a decision that some within the Sharks organization, specifically Darryl and Nicholls, weren’t happy about and both made their feelings well known as opening day approached.
Darryl, who played the 1978-79 season with Iwakura Tomakomi of the Japan league and led the league in scoring with 41 points (28-13-41), was told by then Sharks owner George Gund III to scale back his public comments regarding his displeasure of going overseas for the two games after Gund received a phone call from someone high up on the NHL’s executive chain ordering him to do so.
“We logged the second-most miles in the league last season (1997-98), said a pedestrian Darryl to Cooper. “So, I suppose, what’s another 5,000 miles?”
While Darryl toned down his public comments, Nicholls turned up the volume in voicing his frustration with the league sending the Sharks and Flames overseas.
“I’m all for promoting the game by going to cities in the Untied States or Canada that are going to have a team,” said Nicholls to Cooper. “Is (commissioner Gary) Bettman going to Japan? I don’t think so.
“I can’t wait until New York or New Jersey has to go. To me, it’s another stupid thing Bettman has come up with. I wish someone would tell me why we’re doing this. We travel more than any team in the league and we’re traveling some more. If it was a four or five hour trip, I’d have no problem. I have no problem with the country or anything. We’re not going over there sightseeing — we’re going to work. I just don’t understand why we’re doing this.”
THE LAND OF THE RISING SUN
After participating in a cultural sensitivity class, the Sharks left for Tokyo on Oct. 6, 1998. Once there, the Sharks began their ambassadorial duties, which they took very seriously in the wake of Team USA hockey members thrashing their rooms at the Olympic Village after being eliminated at the Nagano Olympics eight months prior.
Some of those duties saw Sharks forwards Patrick Marleau and Joe Murphy conduct a hockey clinic for Japanese kids; goaltender Mike Vernon donned a Japanese robe and helped break open a ceremonial barrel of sake at a reception inside a hotel banquet room; forward Mike Ricci and defenseman Bryan Marchment were also asked to wear robes at the same reception as well as bang on Taiko drums.
In addition to their goodwill gestures, some of the Sharks players got a chance to experience the local culture. In the Roppongi district, forward Marco Sturm and defensemen Scott Hannan and Andy Sutton each received a massage that consisted of the masseuse walking on their backs and legs for an hour.
At the conclusion of their Thursday afternoon practice, Nicholls, Murphy and fellow forward Shawn Burr took a taxi to a sushi parlor where each ordered the house special. While the food was good, the bill wasn’t as it came out to 66,000 yen, which translated into near five hundred dollars at the time.
Once their acts of diplomacy and sightseeing adventures were done, the Sharks were ready for the first game of their two game set against the Flames at Yoyogi Arena. However, the Sharks squad that was prepared to take the ice wasn’t the team many fans (home and abroad) had expected to see.
While then Sharks General Manager Dean Lombardi was able to sign two of the Sharks’ restricted free agents in Ricci and defenseman Mike Rathje before the team headed overseas, Lombardi was unable to sign the Sharks’ biggest offensive weapons in restricted free agent forwards Owen Nolan and Jeff Friesen.
In addition, the Sharks were without defensemen Marcus Ragnarsson, who suffered a broken left thumb via a slash in the final preseason game, and Gary Suter, who was recovering from triceps surgery. To top it all off, visa issues kept defenseman Andre Zyuzin from joining the team until late Friday afternoon Japan time, half a day before the opening game.
Going into the two game set with a makeshift squad seemed appropriate for the Sharks as Yoyogi Arena, which hosted Game ONe ’97 and the swimming competitions at the 1964 Olympics, had a makeshift rink with horrible ice conditions. In fact, one end of the rink had a diving board hanging over it as a swimming pool was underneath the rink.
It was on that rink during Game ONe ’97 that Canucks forward Mark Messier suffered a groin injury that hampered him all of the 1997-98 season. In response, the NHL flew in a temporary refrigeration system for the Game ONe ’98 series but a combination of outside warm air, the humid atmosphere of the arena itself and thick air inside made the ice surface sloppy and dangerous to play on.
“Godawful ice” is how coach Darryl Sutter described the rink and playing conditions to Mark Purdy of the Mercury News after the first game of the set. “But when it’s like that, you’ve just got be simple and stupid.”
HOCKEY AFTERNOONS IN TOKYO
On a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon (Oct. 9, 1998), which was Friday night back in San Jose, the Sharks and Flames took the ice for the first game of their two game set. Though it wasn’t a sellout crowd (Yoyogi Arena holds 10,000 people), the Sharks and Flames put on an exciting game in front of the announced 8,400 fans in attendance, which included near 500 Sharks fans who made the trip from Northern California and made Yoyogi Arena feel like the Shark Tank with traditional Sharks cheers, chants and chomps.
Murphy put the Sharks ahead 1-0 when he buried home the rebound of Sturm’s shot from the right circle for a late first period power play goal. However, the Sharks’ lead only lasted 26-seconds as the Flames answered right back when forward Jason Wiemer finished off a two-on-two rush with linemate Dave Roche.
The Flames went ahead 2-1 at 7:03 of the second period when forward Valeri Bure swiped the puck from Marchment, who was positioned near the front of his own net, and beat Vernon over the shoulder with a quick snap shot.
In the third period, the Sharks tied the game at 6:14 when they got a goal from an unlikely candidate in Rathje, who had just three goals in 81 games the season prior. With the puck on top of the left circle, Rathje fired a shot that hit one of the Flames players in front, then bounced off the skate of another Flames player before beating Flames goaltender Ken Wregget.
As was the case when the Sharks scored in the first period, the Flames answered right back, this time two-and-a-half minutes later, when forward Andrew Cassels curled around from behind the net and beat Vernon for the go-ahead goal at 9:44, one second after the penalty to Sharks defenseman Bill Houlder expired.
Just as it appeared the Sharks were going to open the season with a loss, Ricci corralled a pass out of the corner from linemate Stéphane Matteau and beat Wregget with a shot from the faceoff circle at 17:42 for the tying goal that forced overtime.
In the extra session, Flames forward Theo Fleury had the Flames’ best chance to win the game on a point blank chance with 30-seconds left but was stopped by Vernon, who finished with 27 saves, 16 of which came in the third period and overtime, and had to endure several pileups in front of his goal crease.
“Have you been in the subway system here?” asked Vernon post game to Purdy. “That’s the way it was in there, with people running all over you.”
Despite bad ice and a makeshift lineup, the Sharks were able to grab one point as the result of strong play from Vernon, Murphy, Ricci, who had a goal and an assist, and Hannan, who dished out two assists in his first career NHL game.
The next day (Oct. 10, 1998), Hockey Night in Canada joined the second game in progress, which saw Fleury register a five point game with a hat trick in a 5-3 Flames win. In addition, the game marked the last NHL game in the career of current Sharks television color commentator Jamie Baker, who registered an assist for the Sharks in the loss.
“I don’t think we played well enough to win this game,” said Ricci post game to Purdy. “No offense to anyone, but obviously this trip wasn’t the best situation and it’s definitely been a disappointment.”
“It was a pain in the ass, a waste of time,” said Sharks head coach Darryl Sutter of the Tokyo trip to Purdy after the game two loss. “Even the league has addressed that. First they said they would be coming here every year for the next 20 years. Now they say it will be maybe every other year. So basically what they’re saying is, forget about it.”
Calgary Flames Hockey Club