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Penguins, Predators Open in Japan

October 6, 2000

OMIYA, Japan (AP) _ When the Penguins open their season against the Nashville Predators in Japan on Saturday, they’ll be hoping for a little home-ice advantage.

It’s not just wishful thinking. Omiya, home of the Saitama Super Arena, is Pittsburgh’s sister-city. And Japanese fans will be cheering the Penguin’s Jaromir Jagr, a celebrity here and prime draw of the two-game series.

The NHL’s scoring champion was in demand Friday, when the teams held an open practice at the new arena just outside Tokyo.

``Where’s Jagr?″ asked 12-year-old Shingo Ishino after the Penguins had left the ice to let the Predators practice. ``I want to see him score a goal.″

Fans are not the only ones looking to Jagr. The Penguins are counting on the Czech superstar to lead them to their first Stanley Cup since 1992, after making it through just two playoff rounds last season.

Starting the season abroad is fitting for the multicultural Penguins, the most European team in the NHL. Czech Ivan Hlinka will debut as head coach, expected to use a more defensive-oriented system to cut down on opponents’ odd-man rushes.

The Predators, meanwhile, are aiming to improve their scoring. The three-year-old team had a lackluster 1999-2000 season, getting only 199 goals, the third-lowest in the league.

Not that they aren’t ready for Asian ice. The team has Scott Walker _ who scored the first-ever official NHL goal outside North America here in 1997 with the Vancouver Canucks _ and advice from Yujiro Nakajimaya, a Japan Hockey League player who spent the past month with Nashville.

Still, first-timers to Japan were awestruck.

``It’s overwhelming,″ Predators center Mark Mowers said after practice. ``I’m looking forward to playing in front of hopefully some crazy Japanese fans.″

Fans seemed just as anxious. A few hundred who skipped work or school Friday to watch the afternoon practice included a beauty queen, a fan club and 14 hockey-playing pre-teens from a U.S. army base three hours away.

``They’re good. They’re really good,″ said Daniel Rice, 9, who planned also to attend Sunday’s game with his inline hockey team. ``I really hope the puck flies over so I can get it.″

Nana Okumura, crowned Miss Japan in 1998, came to the practice and had officials introduce her to Jagr. Members of the NHL Fan Club in Japan waited for players outside the arena, one carrying a stack of portraits she’d drawn of NHL players.

The two-game series on Saturday and Sunday, will be the third time the NHL has opened its season in Japan. The last was in 1998, when the Calgary Flames played the San Jose Sharks.

Mowers raved about Tokyo’s numerous ``tachigui,″ or ``stand-up and eat,″ joints, where customers _ mostly businessmen on the go _ slurp down bowls of hot noodles at a high counter.

``I’m not a fish guy,″ the Nashville center said. ``I like the noodle shops.″

Others were amazed of Tokyo’s crowds and heavy traffic. Predators center David Legwand was among the bewildered.

``I’ve been to parts of the world, but this is definitely the craziest,″ he said.

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