Johnson: Flames alumni off to Hong Kong for goodwill hockey mission
McDonald among group that will aim to help grow the game in a non-traditional puck market
Lanny McDonald has never visited Hong Kong.
He did make a junket to the Far East before, though. Tokyo, Japan, specifically, back in early October of 1998.
That trip, for two games to kick off the NHL’s regular season that year between the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks, was memorable for more than a 3-3 OT tie and a 5-3 triumph for Darryl Sutter’s courageous men in teal. A three-metre diving board hung over the ice surface at the one end of the swimming pool that doubled as a rink. Anyone who was there to see Harvey the Hound in full regalia, sardine-packed into a subway bullet train at early-morning rush hour, the regular commuters acting as if seeing a seven-foot dog mascot hanging on to a strap was the most natural thing in the world, can ever forget it.
Then there was The Cavern Club in the Rippongi club district that featured three sets of Beatles impersonators. The John, George Paul and Ringo-wannabes couldn’t speak a lick of English in actual conversation but had learned to harmonize on the Fab Four’s hits so seamlessly, you’d screw your eyes shut and swear there was a 33 R.P.M. Apple Records platter spinnin’ on the turntable.
“Funny,” McDonald laughed Monday, “I was just telling someone about that the other day, seeing the Japanese Beatles.”
There’ll doubtless be more tales to tell a couple of weeks from now.
Seven Flames’ alumni from the 1989 Stanley Cup champs — McDonald, Perry Berezan, Colin Patterson, Jim Peplinski, Joel Otto, Jamie Macoun and Dana Murzyn — are among a troupe of 11 ex-players, wives included, heading to Hong Kong in short order to promote hockey, as guests of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
The players will be present at the Chamber’s annual Canadian Community Ball, a strictly black-tie affair with individual tickets going for $2,200 a pop, as well as attending coaching and skating clinics at Megabox in Kowloon before shaking off enough of the retirement rust to challenge students from The Canadian International School in Aberdeen to a series of road-hockey games.
The event is being billed as Hockey Night in Hong Kong, although it’s anybody’s guess as to what local is being conscripted to take on the Don Cherry schtick.
“I continue to be impressed by how you can take the universal language of hockey, that says Canada, and take it to a land that doesn’t know much about it,” says Peplinski. “All of a sudden, people get Canada and they like hockey.
“I’ve seen it happen in all kinds of unlikely places, even in Dubai.
“The Chamber has been the driver behind this. The Flames and (vice-president of sales) Rollie Cyr have done a ton of work in putting it all together. When you have the opportunity to see a foreign land and people are interested in your game and want to expand it, we’re only too happy to over, give our insights and hopefully have a positive impact.
“Sport is a worldwide calling card that really opens up doors.”
In a metropolis of seven million-plus, hockey, predictably, is but a speck on the sporting and cultural landscape. Right now, there over 1,300 registered players, 80 per cent of those of Asian origin, and 600 of are those junior-aged. But a lack of facilities is holding back any substantive advance in popularity.
“They really need funding to build new rinks,” stresses Berezan. “And considering we’re talking about Hong Kong here, well, yeah, money’s gonna be an issue. So anything we can do to raise awareness for the game, we’re there to do.”
“You see hockey being introduced to so many place worldwide now,” marvels McDonald. “And so many more are getting really good. Who could’ve predicted even five years ago that Switerzland would be the evolving hockey country internationally?
“The most enticing part of this is hanging out with the alumni and our wives. We have way too much fun together. So when the opportunity came up to go over, how could any of us say no?
“And there’s the Alberta connection, to support not only minor hockey but the oil and gas business. I think there’s five of us work who in the oil and gas business. So why not promote Alberta, promote trade, and promote the heck out of the game at the same time?”
Joining the Flames alumni for the events are a couple of old Oilers, Fernando Pisani and Chris Joseph, along with the Montreal Canadiens’ legendary Roadrunner, Yvan Cournoyer, and big Bubba, Barry Beck. The former player of the N.Y. Rangers, Colorado Rockies and L.A. Kings currently resides in Hong Kong and will be acting be a de facto tour guide and liaison.
“I keep saying this, but it really is one of these trips-of-a-lifetime,” says Berezan. “One of those ‘Really?! You need me for hockey but I get to go where . . .?’ kinda deals.”
So the travellers, quite wisely, have booked an extra few days for a side trip to Beijing, to tour the Forbidden Palace and maybe take a run along the Great Wall.
“More than anything, we’ll be goodwill ambassadors for Canada, the game of hockey and for sport in general,” reckons Peplinski. “When you look what they’ve done for each of us, why wouldn’t we take a few days and see what we can give back in return?
“You’re always looking to build bridges, expand horizons.
“People might say ‘Hong Kong?!’ But it’s the old saying — Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’ve got my power bars and my almonds, and I’m ready to go.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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Former Calgary Flames player Lanny McDonald, left, seen skating with Theoren Fleury during last month’s Pro-Am Face Off for Alzheimer’s charity hockey tournament, is among a group of Flames alumni heading to Hong Kong as hockey ambassadors.
Photograph by: Calgary Herald/Files, Calgary Herald