It was back in April of 1976 when the Coca-Cola Bottlers’ Cup, a four-game exhibition series, took place in Japan. The series was devised as a way of stirring up interest in hockey in Japan.
The NHL selected the Washington Capitals and the Kansas City Scouts as the participants, as it was unlikely that either team would make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 1975-76 season. Both teams were second-year expansion teams and had been the two worst teams in the NHL for the 1974-75 season. The Scouts went 15-54-11 and finished in last place in the Smythe Division. The Caps went 8-67-5 and finished in last place in the Norris Division, a record that still stands as an NHL-worst record.
The two teams lived down to NHL management’s expectations for the 1975-76 season, with the Scouts finishing with a record of 12-56-12 and the Capitals finishing with a record of 11-59-10. Both records were the worst in the NHL, by far, with Kansas City even going on a 27-game winless streak during the season. The two clubs embarked on a 10-day, four-game exhibition tour of Japan, with two games in Tokyo and two games in Sapporo. The tournament itself cost $400,000 and the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Japan reportedly forked out three quarters of that amount.
Tickets were not cheap, costing up to $26 apiece. Players from both teams received $1,250 plus $45 per diem, as well as all their expenses being paid. The players’ wives and girlfriends were also invited on the trip.
Guy Charron, who played for the Scouts at that time, said, “Whether it was a promotional thing, basically the two teams they selected to go to Japan had to be pretty well out of the playoffs by a certain time. Being two expansion teams by January, February we pretty well knew that we weren’t going to make the playoffs, so therefore there was a lot work to be done for passports and things like that. I am assuming that it was a promotional thing by the NHL for Japanese hockey. I think it was the first time the NHL ever went to Japan.”
The series was not a high-stakes series, so the players could take in the culture of Japan. They stayed at a luxury hotel featured in the James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice”. While in Japan, the players attended a sumo wrestling event, ate a traditional dinner at a grill house and watched a Kabuki theatre production. The wives and girlfriends were taken on a tour of Kyoto and also spent time shopping and getting manicures.
Charron commented, “There was culture to learn from them. We did have the opportunity to see some (sumo) wrestling. To have an opportunity to go this far and see a different culture, it was exciting.”
Then-Capitals Head Coach Tom McVie expected his team to capture the Coca-Cola Cup and made it known he would be disappointed if they didn’t win all four games. Forward Ron Lalonde recalled, “Right up until we left from Washington, we continued to practice, even though our season was over. We flew out to L.A. the night before and practiced in the L.A. Forum before flying from L.A. to Japan.”
The Caps had a three-hour layover in Hawaii because the plane ahead of them blew a tire on the runway. Goalie Bernie Wolfe recalled after the fact that players got wasted at the airport bar during the layover.
As soon as the Caps landed in Japan, McVie had the team practice. Wolfe commented about it, “I’m not sure if Tommy was trying to impress anybody but there were just a whole bunch of Japanese reporters and fans leaning over the boards with their cameras, and I remember the workout was so hard, a couple of our players actually puked right over the boards on cameras the Japanese reporters were holding.”
Wolfe also remembered the warm reception the Capitals received when their plane touched down in Japan. “When we got off the plane, there was a sign that said, ‘Welcome Washington Capitals: Team of beautiful women and brave men.’ My wife laughed because here she’s almost seven months pregnant, and after 15 hours on a plane, she said she looked anything but beautiful.”
While the Caps were relatively energized and gaining momentum, the Scouts had come to Japan demoralized. They had ended the 1975-76 season with a 27-game winless streak. There were also rumors that the Scouts would move or the team might fold. But once the games started, the Scouts played with intensity.
The plan was for the first two games to be played in Sapporo on April 14-15 and the last two games played in Tokyo on April 17-18. The games in Sapporo were held on the Tsukisamu ice rink, which was the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics.
Game 1 – April 14 — Sapporo
The first game on April 14 was held in front of 4,500 fans. Mike Lampman of the Caps recalled the atmosphere in the arena, “The arena was really chilly. It almost reminded you of your childhood days in some of the old arenas.”
The Capitals took a 2-1 lead in the first game when forward Mike Marson scored, followed by a goal from Bob Sirois at 12:17 to put Washington ahead 3-1. During the second period, the Caps scored two more goals while the Scouts scored once. There was no scoring in the third period so the final score was 5-2 in favor of the Capitals. McVie was disappointed that his team seemed to sit on their 5-2 lead.
Both teams looked groggy and listless, according to a game description in the Washington Post. A Japanese fan, 47-year-old Keisuke Atarashi, lamented, “I expected more fighting and blood.” This was likely because promoters had promised fans violence in order to draw a larger crowd. McVie had compared the Japanese fans to mannequins. Hartland Monahan compared the Sapporo crowd to “a morgue” . Ron Lalonde, meanwhile, described the fans as “… really quiet. They were almost polite. You’d hear clapping like here at a play or something… polite applause.” Mike Lampman commented, “I remember on occasion when the puck would go into the stands, they would politely throw it back.”
Game 2 – April 15 — Sapporo
The attendance for the second game was 4,000 fans. In that game, both teams played better than they did in the first game. Steve Durbano of the Scouts scored to decrease the Caps’ lead to 3-2. During the third period, the Capitals scored three times, including two power play goals to increase their lead to 6-2 which stood as the final score. By winning, the Capitals were given cassette recorders as a prize. Players scoring for the Caps included Gerry Meehan, who scored twice and Bob Sirois, Tony White, Mike Lampman, and Jean Lemieux, who each scored once. Jean-Guy Legace scored the other Scouts goal.
The games in Tokyo took place at Yoyogi Olympic Stadium. The atmosphere was totally different than at Sapporo as there were American cheerleaders and the U.S. Army Brass Band. The playing conditions of that arena left something to be desired, including poor ice conditions, poor lighting, and boards that were much too short.
Bernie Wolfe commented on the ice, “The arena was built on top of the Olympic swimming pool so right above my net there were about two or three high-diving boards. There were puddles everywhere on the ice, and in other spots, it was quite slushy, making it an ordeal to carry or pass the puck.” Then-Capitals Captain, Yvon Labre commented, “It was wet. Swimming pool ice. That kind of soft ice slows down the game. You just can’t carry the puck. When Labre was told there was a swimming pool under the rink floor, he responded, “Thank God we didn’t fall through. It was wet enough on the ice.”
The lighting was also poor, making it hard for goalies to see the pucks speeding towards their heads. There was also no glass or screen to protect fans. Wolfe remembers it as being “sort of like a boomerang… The net would go back and then throw the puck forward again, so you also had to be careful on a high shot that you didn’t get hit in the back of the head on a rebound.”
Ron Lalonde commented on the boards, “There was nothing really holding them back other than some cement blocks all around,” explained Lalonde, “so when you hit it, there’s lots of give to it, but beyond the boards there was more ice.”
Game 3 – April 17 – Tokyo
For Game 3, there were 9,200 fans in attendance, including some North Americans. In that game, forward Greg Joly put the Capitals ahead 1-0 early, getting assists from Sirois and White. Lampman scored before the midpoint of the first period to put the Caps ahead 2-0. The Scouts scored once in the first period and once at the beginning of the second period. Their momentum would not last long, as the Capitals scored three more times in the second to take a commanding 5-2 lead; the goals came courtesy of Tony White, Harvey Bennett, and Blair Stewart. Lampman scored a goal in the third to give the Caps a 6-2 lead which was the final score. The prize awarded at the end of the game was Japanese geisha dolls.
Game 4 – April 18 – Tokyo
Game 4 was played before a crowd of 9,000, and unlike the prior three games, the contest did not go as well for Washington. The Capitals fell behind 2-0 early in the second period. Lampman scored to narrow the deficit to 2-1, but the Scouts scored once again to make the score 3-1. John Saar of The Washington Post described the Capitals’ play as “lethargic” and similar to being “pushed around the ice like a car with a dead battery.” The Capitals came out strong for the third period as Jean Lemieux scored to reduce the deficit to 4-2. Scouts goalie Denis Herron made many great saves, especially during a 5-on-3 penalty kill to hold on for a Kansas City victory. After the game, McVie chalked up the poor performance to the Capitals being “hockeyed out”.
The teams lined up after the game to shake hands and the Capitals received the Coca-Cola Cup during a short ceremony. Lampman talked about the Cup, saying, “What I remember of it was this almost old-fashioned ‘B’-type cup that was decorated with ribbons that dangled below the trophy, but it was nothing of great note. Brass, nothing fancy, maybe a little wooden base to it.” After the game, both teams indulged in drinking the complimentary bottles of Coke.
The players on both teams got to spend five days in Hawaii at the expense of the NHL. It turned out that the 1975-76 was the last year the Scouts played in Kansas City. The team was moved to Colorado the next season and renamed the Rockies. They struggled in Colorado and were eventually relocated to Newark, New Jersey and renamed the Devils.
Guy Charron who was playing with the Scouts for that series would become a free agent as his contract was expiring after the 1975-76 season. McVie was so impressed by Charron’s play in Japan that he decided he needed Charron on the Caps in 1976-77. As a result, Charron signed with Washington as a free agent on September 1, 1976. As compensation for signing Charron, the Caps sent Nelson Pyatt to the Scouts in return.
Eddie Bush, the Head Coach of the Scouts, envisioned a bright future for hockey in Japan thanks to the success of this series. “They sure go for baseball here. I imagine in time, the Japanese will go for pro hockey. This tour… this is how it all starts.” While Bush’s prediction has yet to come true, regular season NHL games were eventually played in Japan in 1997, 1998 and 2000. In addition, the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics were held in the country, which featured dozens of NHL stars.
By Diane Doyle