Monday, March 30, 2009

Found in Translation

Last week I headed to Japan for a stay of 5 weeks. I had known this trip was coming for a long while... and knowing full well that if my beloved Los Angeles Kings were still contending for that 8th playoff seed... I wouldn't be able to experience it at all. Luckily it seems like the Kings are going to make my stay in Japan a pleasant one... since I don't have to worry about calling my Season Ticket Rep from overseas to secure playoff tickets. It looks like this will be the 7th consecutive year that I will be unable to see playoff hockey in person... so I decided to do the next best thing. Crash Game 6 of the Asia League Hockey Finals!

Why just simply get off at the Higashi-Fushimi station off the Seibu-Shinjuku line to get to the rink. Duh!

The DyDo Drinco Ice Arena was right across the street from the station and if that wasn't easy enough, there were giant banners of the hometown Seibu Prince Rabbits as you walked towards the entrance.

No way! I forgot Tanaka was on the Prince Rabbits!

Here we go Kamino... here we go!

I hadn't even made it into the stadium yet and I already wanted to buy some merch. I mean, is this the coolest staff jacket you've ever seen or what?

My co-worker (who happens to be a huge Pittsburgh Penguins fan) and I made our way to the ticket booth and were able to secure walk up tickets to Game 6 for 30 bucks (3000 yen). When I went to Game 6 against the Colorado Avalanche in 2002 (the last time the Kings had a home playoff game) the tickets I got off eBay went for $180 a piece.

Ticket in hand, and 2 overly cynical hard-core hockey fans actually starting to get excited about making it to this game, we headed to the front entrance. I mean, if this league was good enough for Esa Tikkanen to play in one season and then coach the next... it had to be good enough for me... right? Well... we walked in and this is what we saw...

And then I knew it was going to be awesome.

Sure the place only held about 1600, but it was packed... standing room only. The atmosphere was incredibly festive... with the fans of the home Seibu Prince Rabbits and the opposing Nippon Paper Cranes filling the building. It actually reminded me of a Kings game at Staples Center in the sense that everyone in the arena was passionate about the game... but if you stepped back outside, no one knew what the heck hockey was.

Now, I've been witness to some horrible, horrible team slogans in my lifetime as a hockey fan. (Just look at this years PRIDE = PASSION = POWER campaign for the Kings) But for theSeibu Prince Rabbits... they keep it simple. "Smile." Yup, that's right. The #1 ranked team in the Asia League Ice Hockey has a slogan of "Smile."

Somewhere, deep in the canyons of Los Angeles, Brian Wilson is... well... smiling.

We decided to wander around and explore the arena... and that's when I caught the Japanese Brian Burke staring down at his re-built playoff team.

A cross-armed GM translates in any language.

We were both hoping for a better home team merch table as this was the only booth set up.

So this is what it's like to not have Sidney Crosby on the front of every hockey magazine.

But on the other side of the arena, there was a bit of a surprise.

I flew halfway around the world and all I found was this stupid replica Vancouver jersey.

Also for sale were the McFarlane NHL figurines.

And then this caught my eye underneath the table.

I had no idea Play It Again Sports had an international presence.

The atmosphere may be different, but one thing remains the same when experiencing American and Japanese sports... cheerleaders!

Every time there was a stop in play, the Prince Rabbit cheerleaders would step out to the boards and cheer their little Japanese hearts out. And yes... they would smile.

As for the quality of the hockey... well, it was on par to the handful of sub-ECHL league games that I've been to. (Yup, I've seen a CHL Austin Ice Bats game before. Actually 2 of them.) Although the finesse may not have been there, there was a playoff intensity between all the players.

Former Boston Bruin and Colorado Avalanche (18 NHL Games!) Joel Prpic is the big non-native star for the Price Rabbits and the crowd goes wild for him. The Nippon Paper Cranes also have a star Gaijin playing for them... but he may have the most un-marketable name in sports history.

But for me... the most impressive player of the night came from the opposing Paper Cranes. One of their defensemen was rocking white skates...

Just like Kurt Russell in "The Best of Times."

There must have been some magic in those old white skates of his, as this defenseman scored a goal near the end of the 1st period. But then one of the strangest things I've ever seen at a hockey game happened. The referee left the ice and went to the back of the penalty box... to review the goal.

The Tokyo equivalent of the Toronto War Room.

The goal stood... and the period ended with the Prince Rabbits up 3-2. And then the players all exited the ice from the same door.

How cool would the Stanley Cup Playoffs be if the teams shared an exit door?
No, after you Mr. Lemieux. No, after you Mr. Draper.

In between periods, the experience was very similar to NHL games. Fans shared smokes outside...

there was a long line for the bathroom...

and they ate delicious bean pastry treats...

Since my co-worker and I were actually supposed to be working and not sneaking away for a few hours to see Game 6 of the Asia League Ice Hockey finals... we decided to stay for the first few minutes of the 2nd period before taking off. The Zamboni (Japan is still rocking the 1 Zamboni system) left the ice and then Prince Rabbit fans assembled to begin cheering.

Could you imagine NHL fans being this passionate AND polite about their favorite team...

Suddenly, a giagantic banner was lifted over these fans and some intense cheering began.

And then once the craziness was over... the Japanese fans neatly and quickly folded the banner. That's just the Japanese way.

With that, my co-worker and I made our way back to the train station and sadly... back to work. Ice Hockey in Japan is still in its infancy, but from what I saw, there is a passion that could easily catch on. The Japanese are extremely dedicated to their teams... a trait they share with their American NHL fan counterparts. Later that night, we found out that the Prince Rabbits had won 4-3 and forced a Game 7. They would go on to lose to the Nippon Paper Cranes the next night and later that day, my co-worker found an article that informed us that the Seibu Prince Rabbits would be folding next season. From my limited experience, Seibu was one of the more popular teams in the Asia League... so the collapse of more teams in the Asia League Ice Hockey may not be far behind.

In the meantime, while the sport still struggles to gain popularity in Japan, what is a hockey fan to do? Well... it's simple. Smile!

Special, special, special thanks to Simon over at the amazing JHockey. Without his help, I would have never been able to figure out how to go to this great game. Also, check out his recap of the final Prince Rabbits game.


jamestobrien said...

Just an awesome post. Here's a suggested marketing campaign:

"Don't be a dick, be like Dyck."


Anonymous said...

Awesome, you guys made it to the game! Those were some intense games at the end of the series (and franchise), I'm just hoping that the team stays on in Tokyo in one form or another but there are no prospectives yet...

Vance said...

To this day I never thought I would ever hear the name, Joel Prpic, ever again.

To say that he was cheered, and often derided, incessantly by myself and friends during his days with the Hershey Bears would be an understatement.

Joel Prpic, my God, I have some texts to send...Joel Prpic...hahahahahahahaha.

jamestobrien said...

My question for Vance/Kontos/jhockey: how do you pronounce Joel Prpic. Seriously, his name gets by on the least amount of vowels possible.

Vance said...

If I recall correctly, now this was a good 8 years ago, it's pronounced purr (as in a cat's purrs) - pic (as in a/s/l/pic?). Might want to get that clarified with someone who hasn't let a decade pass between Joel Prpic references.

I remember him being a pretty big dude, not much else though, can't blame that on beer though, since you know, I was like 13.

jamestobrien said...

I'd like to nominate Vance to start an "alternate phonetic spelling" Web site. That was simply EXCELLENT.

Unknown said...

This post was awesome. Love to see hockey pics from around the world. Too bad about the team folding, though :(

Prpic - The correct way would be Purr-pitch. In Slavic languages, l and r are sometimes y in English.

jamestobrien said...

Thanks for commenting Jes. How's life without hockey blogging treating you (or did you jump back in)? Either way, great to hear from you and thanks or the Czech tips :)

PJ Swenson said...

This post is awesome, great job Chris.

Seibu and Nippon seem like they are in the finals every year. The league said they are still looking for a new corporate sponsor.

The China Sharks could not make the playoffs even with Wade Flaherty in goal and Steve McKenna on defense.

Anonymous said...

A Chinese team were not doormats for the first time in the league's existence though, so the presence of Flaherty was huge. He did win the best goalie honours playing on one of the worst teams in the league regularly facing 40+ shots and many many quality scoring chances per game. He singlehandedly kept the Sharks in many games they had no business being in, and kept them out of the cellar. Showing that being an AHL backup is quite superior to the Asia League's level of play, even at his advanced age :P

Chris Kontos said...

It was an amazing time. I hope to make it back to next years series!

jamestobrien said...

You know a post has wide sway when it gets linked on a Mets blog. Crazy stuff. Great job, Chris.

jamestobrien said...

Linked way at the bottom of this Mets season preview post (which, by the way, is pretty brilliant):

Unknown said...

found in translation?? I would be definitely lost in translation if I ever go to Japan, especially if they are trying to explain me something about the Japanese bookmaking business there