YORKTON - As a teenager I was an avid sports fan complete with an annual birthday gift of a yearly subscription to Sports Illustrated.
As such I followed hockey as closely as any sport – buying The Hockey News with fair regularity and of course watching Hockey Night In Canada in the days of two channel TV.
I would have suggested I at least knew of most stories out of the NHL in the mid-1970s, those long ago years of being a middle teen.
But, I will admit I had not even a passing recollection of a series pitting the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts against each other in Japan in the spring of 1976.
So it was with some excitement I dug into ‘When the NHL Invaded Japan: The Washington Capitals, the Kansas City Scouts and the Coca-Cola Bottlers’ Cup, 1975-1976 by Steve Currier.
The title, one of the longer you are likely to see, is intriguing because the Coca-Cola Bottlers’ Cup is about as obscure an event in the annuals of the NHL as you are likely to find, which as it turns out put it right in the sweet spot for author Currier.
“I’ve always been the type who enjoys researching and writing about obscure topics,” said the author in a recent interview with Yorkton This Week.
Currier, a member of the Society for International Hockey Research and the moderator of the tribute site GoldenSealsHockey.com, living in Ottawa, Ont. said he had lots of material gathered on the Montreal Canadiens but that didn’t mean he could glean an interesting new story from it.
“There’s nothing I could add to Montreal Canadiens history . . . No obscure corners to explore,” he said.
But there is a trend in sports books being written today to go off the ‘beaten path’ so to speak, and pen tomes about the unusual, and even about teams that were lousy, said Currier.
An example being Currier’s earlier work The California Golden Seals: A Tale of White Skates, Red Ink, and One of the NHL's Most Outlandish Teams, and the previously cover and related The NHL's Mistake by the Lake: A History of the Cleveland Barons, by Max Webster.
Currier said it in interesting to delve “into the little corners that have never been looked at before,” adding readers seem interested too, as they seek something not widely known.
That is the Coca-Cola Bottlers’ Cup.
Currier said even in a day of fingertip access to loads of information online the four-game series made barely a blip, and even North American press of the day gave it scant coverage.
The lack of coverage might have been in part due to the teams involved being abysmal. The Capitals and Scouts had been bad from the first day they were admitted to the NHL with the existing teams offering up players who were at best fringe and at worst not pro quality.
The teams rarely won in their first years in the NHL and suddenly they were going to Japan to highlight the sport and the league. As Currier’s tale suggests, many thought the whole affair seemed largely farcical.
So the book has an interesting little gem at its heart.
“When the NHL announced in early 1976 that its two worst teams, the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts, would travel to Japan for a four-game exhibition series dubbed the Coca-Cola Bottlers’ Cup, fans and media were baffled,” notes the publisher’s page at mcfarlandbooks.com. “The Capitals and the Scouts were both expansion teams, with a combined 46 wins, 236 losses and 38 ties in their first two seasons—stats made more dismal when considering seven of those wins were against each other.
“Yet lagging so hopelessly behind the rest of the NHL, they were perfect for a one-off event on the other side of the globe. The series was an eye-opening success. Players skated on an Olympic swimming pool ringed with rickety boards hung with fishing nets that boomeranged pucks into their faces, as curious Japanese fans gasped at the gap-toothed Canadians wrestling on the ice. Filled with rare photos and player recollections, this book tells the story of how two league doormats became hockey heroes’ half-way around the world.”
To be fair, the actual games in Japan, four were played, end up being a rather small part of Currier’s book, about 50 pages.
The bulk of the book looks at the dismal play of the Scouts and Capitals -- a level of on ice and off ineptitude by everyone from the NHL owners to the players – which ultimately allowed the league to send the teams to Japan.
“They knew by February or March the teams weren’t going to make the playoffs,” said Currier, adding it was a situation which made promoting them playing a series in Japan possible.
For the players, coming off terrible seasons where wins were historically rare, the series was one bright spot, but all but unknown today – even the Coca-Cola Bottlers’ Cup was missing for a time, and then tossed to a refuse bin before being saved.
Thanks to Currier the bizarre story is now more readily accessible and for fans of the obscure and of hockey the resulting book is well-worth watching for.