Jagr’s Penguins to take on Predators in Japan

by Rob Smaal

Hockey’s been called the best-kept secret in pro sports.

If you like your action fast and furious, then the Saitama Super Arena is the place to be when the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins take on the Nashville Predators in the game one of the Japan-2000 Opening Games series Oct. 7 and 8.

The two-game set will mark the third time the NHL has opened its regular season here in Japan. Back in 1997, the Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim’s Mighty Ducks split a pair of games at Tokyo’s Yoyogi Arena in the first official NHL games played outside of North America. The following season, the Calgary Flames skated to a win and a tie against the San Jose Sharks in Tokyo.

This time around, hockey fans in Japan are in for a special treat when Pittsburgh superstar Jaromir Jagr leads the Penguins onto the ice. Jagr, a 28-year-old marksman from the Czech Republic, has led the league in scoring the past three seasons and was awarded the Hart Trophy after last season as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player.

This past season, Jagr’s feat (96 points, including 42 goals) was that much more remarkable, considering the fact that he missed 19 games through various injuries.

Jagr, one of the greatest finesse players the game has ever seen, teamed up with current Penguins owner Mario Lemieux to help the club win two Stanley Cups in the early 1990s, but his greatest achievement on the ice probably occurred right here in Japan. At the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, Jagr led the underdog Czech Republic squad to the gold medal in the first Olympic hockey tournament to feature National Hockey League professionals.

The Penguins, who iced 14 Europeans this past season — including four Czech Olympians, as well as coach Ivan Hlinka — advanced to the second round of this season’s Stanley Cup playoffs as the seventh seed in the East. After knocking off the second-seeded Washington Capitals in five games, Pittsburgh was eliminated by the No. 1-seeded Philadelphia Flyers in round two. That series featured one game that went to five overtime periods before the Flyers’ Keith Primeau ended the third longest game in NHL history.

Jagr’s supporting cast in Pittsburgh includes fellow-Czech sniper Martin Straka and hard-rock Russian defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. The Nashville Predators, on the other hand, are still in the process of building their legacy. The club just completed its second year in the league, finishing last in the Western Conference’s Central Division with a 28-47-7 record.

Veteran Cliff Ronning led the Preds in scoring in the 1999-2000 campaign, netting 26 goals among his 62 points. Swede Patrick Kjellberg and Greg Johnson also provided some offensive spark. Youngster David Legwand looks to have a promising future ahead of him in the NHL and feisty Tom Fitzgerald provides the club with some solid leadership.

While the hockey action should keep your attention riveted on the ice surface, an added attraction this time around will be the opportunity to check out the brand new state-of-the-art Saitama Super Arena, a $680 million multi-purpose sports and entertainment complex on the outskirts of Tokyo, just 20 minutes out of Ueno Station on the Takasaki Line at Saitama Shintoshin Station.