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Japanese get introduction to hockey fandom

Call it an introduction to the Japanese introduction to ice hockey.

A puck primer of sorts.That's been the pregame treatment at the Big Hat and Aqua Wing ice hockey venues, before both men's and women's games.

During pregame warm-ups, while the players are getting accustomed to the ice, the arena crowd gets acquainted with the finer points of being hockey fans.

And what better way to do that than by blaring "Macarena" from the sound-system loudspeakers and sweeping the video cameras around the arena to catch the relatively few uninhibited Japanese who are willing to stand up and do the dance routine.

Then comes instruction on audience participation. The public-address announcers - one each for the Japanese and English languages - inform the audience that it's now time to learn how to clap at a hockey game. Two huge, animated hands are displayed on the big-screen scoreboard, and the song "If You're Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands" is announced. Round two of the animated video is a quick selection from "The Addams Family" theme song.

The Japanese are quick learners - but who wouldn't be after being force-fed near-triple-digit decibels of standard clapping selections and an ominous pair of white-gloved hands that measure two stories high.

At some of the hockey games, Nagano's "One School, One Country" program has been very visible, with large groups of schoolchildren having spent the past several months learning all about their assigned schools though lectures, homework and class projects.

At a recent U.S. women's game at the Aqua Wing, one entire end of the arena was filled with local teenage students - clapping in unison, waving small American and Japanese flags, doing the wave and chanting the obligatory "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" cheer.

Just like North American games, Nagano's Olympic hockey contests have pop music selections cranked up at every break in the action - everything from icing and penalty calls until the puck is dropped again. One noticeable difference, however, is that none of the fill-in music has been even remotely associated with country music.

Another missing element that is such a predominant part of North American contests: There are no quick commercials during the game or between breaks. No video clips repeated ad nauseam throughout the game. No voice-overs. No promotions. No plugs for sponsors.

In fact, all Olympic venues are free from visible commercial endorsement or sponsorship. So while the TV viewers are being bombarded by Coca-Cola, McDonald's, IBM, UPS, Kodak, VISA, Panasonic and Xerox, fans at the hockey arenas are watching highlights and updates of other hockey games as well as additional Olympic sports.

While Americans have their mandatory "Y-M-C-A" outlet, the Japanese's favorite is the Snowlets' theme song "Ile Aiye" and accompanying dance movements, with the song or video frequently played at different sports venues. It's obvious the song-and-dance routine has been taught repeatedly in local schools - the kids know it and perform it unashamedly; the adults watch both bemused and somewhat bewildered.