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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Japanese Ice Chips In NHL Prospect Camps

It was about 24 years ago when I was flipping channels on my television in my apartment in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan, when I came across a familiar sight to these bloodshot Canadian eyes.

Hockey!

Not that vicious field hockey sport now only played by pleated skirt wearing women in Canada (my dad used to play in Toronto in a city-wide men's league back in the 1960s and 70s), but that graceful ballet performed on ice, where men skate around on razorblades strapped to their feet and try to hammer each other into the plexiglass sides and a small rubber puck into a net guarded by a warrior wearing more protection than any soldier ever wore into battle.

What the fug was ice hockey doing on my television in Japan?!

It turns out there was a Japanese professional men's hockey league.

I recall that one of the teams wore the golden yellow similar to what Sweden's national team used, but instead of the cool Tre Kroner crowns, this team had the head and floppy ears of a bunny rabbit as its logo.

I only wondered for about a second how Japan could turn the inherent violence of the frozen ballet into something... so.... ridiculously cute, and then I remembered that I was in Japan, and who the fug was I to judge... besides... hockey!!!!

It wasn't very good hockey. I can see the game in my head as I write this... but then again, I knew Japan wasn't exactly a world-power in hockey, and with the league looking to create a market for this sport in Japan, using the cute bunny rabbit only made sense for a cute-starved country.

Despite my love of television, and the fact that it was on virtually every hour I was at home and not screwing someone, I never again saw another Japanese hockey game.

Was it a mirage based on vast consumption of sake and beer and copious amounts of something raw?

Years later after becoming a subscriber to The Hockey News magazine, I would occasionally come across some low level international stats that would remind me that Japan did indeed have a national hockey team - just not a good one.

My Sony PS3 video system also plays the odd hockey game that my son likes - despite him selling NHL 2013, he went and got an NHL 2008 game to replace it with... but lo and behold... there's Japan in the game... I played it once as Team Japan, and got my ass handed to me by an eight-year-old using Team Canada. Despite trying to justify the fact that my son had superior players, what was galling was the fact the no matter how you look at it, I was beaten by an eight-year-old.

Anyhow... let's take a look at what is happening for real in the world of the NHL (National Hockey League) here in North America because it's July and nothing says stupid humidity more than NHL news.

The Columbus Blue Jackets have invited Japanese-trained defenceman Hashimoto Ryo (surname first) to their prospect camp this week. The 21-year-old is from the northern island of Hokkaido (born October 23, 1992). That's him in the photo above.

I should also note that Columbus also invited Thomas Larkin, who is trying to become the first Italian-trained NHL player.

The Prospect Development Camp usually has teams inviting just players they themselves have drafted, but sometimes it invites undrafted players - such as Hashimoto.

A member of the Japanese National Hockey program, Hashimoto plays for the Oji Eagles of the Asia League, an 11-year old association made up of eight teams from China, Japan and South Korea. It is the top level of hockey in Japan.

In 109 league games, Hashimoto has seven goals, 31 assists and a plus/minus of +61.

He debuted for the Japanese men’s national team as a 20-year-old participating in two IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) World Championship Division I tournaments and the Olympic Qualification for Sochi 2014.

At the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Korea (Japan finished in 3rd place, missing out on promotion to the top division where Russia and Canad and Sweden et al play) Hashimoto played defence with Aaron Keller, a Canadian who has been playing in Japan for the past 15 years.

Does Hashimoto have a chance to make the Columbus Blue Jackets NHL team?

Well... honestly... no. Maybe.

Says Hashimoto at the camp: "The skating speed, the passing speed, the shooting seed - everything is new to me.”

He also has his size working against him. While there are players of similar stature and weight playing, he is still pretty light - but he is young.

He is a left-handed shot, standing 177-cm (5'-10"), but only weighing 75-kg (165-lbs), which would have made him an average-sized player back in the 1960s.

Asia League vice-chief secretary Umeta Yasuhiro (surname first) has traveled with Hashimoto to Columbus, hoping the player's invitation will lend credibility to the Asia League, while also opening up the door for the possibility of Asian-born players making it to the NHL.

"The (Asia League) is trying to turn into a real professional league," Umeta says. "Within the next three years, a big turning point will come up. That is what I’m hoping for."

And, although I do not have a photo of him, the New York Islanders of the NHL have invited Terao Yuri, 19, to their Prospect camp as well.

Terao represented Japan in the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division I Group B and was voted Best Forward of the tournament, garnering three goals and eight assists in five games.

Could either of these two become the second Asian-trained player to compete in the NHL after Japanese goalkeeper Fukufuji Yutaka (surname first) with the Los Angeles Kings? You can read about Fukufuji in an article I wrote HERE)

Cheers,
Andrew Joseph

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