ALSO ON SLAM!
Sunday, February 8, 1998
Japanese fans are learning
Nagano is not hockey country. It's ski country. The city is surrounded by mountains, many of them with ski runs carved into the side. In fact, you have to leave Japan's main island of Honshu altogether and head north to the island of Hokkaido before you find any real hockey interest.
But last night, in a game against Germany, Team Japan made converts of a building packed with newcomers to the sport.
The Japanese team, playing an energetic, buzz-saw type of game, gave the crowd plenty to cheer about -- and cheer they did, although not always in the right places. There were plays that would seem routine to North Americans that for some reason caught the fancy of the Japanese fans.
They counted down the seconds left in penalties and cheered wildly when an empty-net goal by Germany was disallowed, even though their heroes trailed by two in the dying moments.
But they also cheered in all the right places. After all, it's not hard to get caught up in the excitement when bodies are flying, pucks are clanging off goalposts and the action is zooming from end to end.
And the fact that the Japanese played even with the heavily favored Germans for more than 50 minutes didn't do any harm, either. The score was 1-1 halfway through the third period until the Germans pulled away with a pair of goals that would have stunned a Canadian crowd into silence. But the Japanese continued to cheer.
With Montreal Canadiens assistant coach Dave King at the helm, the Japanese have improved tremendously. In fact, it's not unlikely that by the time the Olympics roll into Salt Lake City in 2002, the Japanese will be part of the A pool.
King spent the 1996-97 season moulding this team. When the job offer came from the Canadiens, he agreed to accept it only on the condition that he would be given a leave of absence for the Olympics.
Because of the time restrictions, King worked first on defence, reasoning that the offence will come over the years. But he doesn't bother with the trap, preferring instead to play a positional pressure game that has given the Japanese some unexpected success.
"We're better players without the puck," he laughed, "so we're going to have to figure out a few ways to give the other teams the puck."
King is under no illusions about Japan's future as a hockey nation. Even though the Japanese might do well in sports such as ski jumping and volleyball, the lack of large people is going to make hockey dominance unlikely.
"We call ourselves Team Tiny," King said. "It's impossible for us to high-stick anybody else in hockey."
In a recent six-game series against Canada's national team, the Japanese held their own. But even so, their lack of size stood out.
"We scored a goal against Canada," King said, "and I distinctly remember seeing this group of our players congratulating each other, and behind, you could see these shoulders and heads of the Canadian players rising above them. It was like a little cluster of flowers under big trees."
By now, King is warming to his subject.
"We had a brawl in Osaka," he chuckled. "Team Canada got a lot of sore knees because we kept beating on their kneecaps."
Brawls involving Japanese players are rare. It is considered bad form to allow one's emotions to take over, and when a scrap nearly broke out as the game against Germany was winding down, the crowd wasn't sure what to do.
At the sign of a scuffle, they cheered, thinking it was just more robust action. Then, when they realized that two players were trying to fight, their eyes widened and they looked on in awe. And when a linesman fell attempting to keep two potential combatants apart, a hush fell over the crowd.
But they quickly got over it. As soon as play resumed, they once again regained their enthusiasm.
For the most part, this is what the NHL was hoping for. The game is going to get the kind of exposure it has never before enjoyed and, along the way, fans are going to get a quick education.
But as long as they like what they see -- and the Japanese certainly did -- they'll come back for more. That's what the NHL is counting on.