photo credit: tata_aka_T Many transplanted hockey fans such as myself, thought they would be forced to give up their passion when they crossed the pond to live in Japan. Perhaps Japan’s best kept secret is that an entire hockey culture exists just below the radar of mainstream media.
A couple years ago on a humid August afternoon, I cleverly sought refuge inside the aging Katsuyama Ice Rink downtown Sendai. A handful of figure skaters dotted the ice with a backdrop untouched since the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics. The old Soviet Union and East German flag hung sadly among faded Canadian and Japanese ones with tired colors of pinks and grays instead of proud reds and whites. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised to see as many old photos of hockey greats as figure skaters. I was approached by a fellow hockey nut, the kind gentlemen that sharpens skates and works at the hockey shop in the rink.
He enlightened me as to the underground popularity of hockey in Sendai and the Tohoku area, and even introduced me to the local MIE league-a two-tiered adult amateur league boasting about 15 teams. The individual talent varies and includes players who would fit in fine in a Canadian beer league, a few ex-pros, and a few ankle skaters. The top team is called the Snots and the bottom is a group of hard working female students and housewives called the Ducky’s.
Today I’m fortunate enough to be a part of the Super Rabbits who share affiliation with the Rabbits, Lady’s Rabbits, and, Cutie Rabbits. Although Japan is a ways away from being a powerhouse, it has a firm place in the international hockey world. Its level is comparative to most European countries with the exception of dominant Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Japan is currently ranked 22nd, and typically can hold its own against teams from Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, France, Germany, and so on.
The Japanese women, on the other hand, are a much bigger presence internationally, and currently sit at number nine. As evident in the strength of the Lady’s Rabbits’ and female participation in Sendai, women’s hockey in Japan is nearly as popular as men’s. One reason may be the softening of rules compared to North America where body contact and fights are as much a part of the highlights as goals and saves.
This season, Tokyo native, Yutaka Fukufuji, became the first Japanese born player to play in the National Hockey League. Long before him, however, Vancouver born Paul Tetsuhiko Kariya, stayed true to his Japanese values and made education a priority despite intense pressure from the NHL and millions of fans in North America to ditch his ambitions at the University of Maine and jump straight into his multi-millionaire future as a pro. As when he attended my high school and played Jr. Hockey in Penticton, Canada, he listened to his Japanese father, and focused on his studies first. As a result he has risen as one of the NHL’s brightest stars both on and off the ice.
Ice Hockey is actually one of the oldest sports in Japan, dating back to the 1920’s (possibly when Katsuyama was built). In 2004 the 38-year-old professional Japan Ice Hockey League folded in favor of the new Asia League Ice Hockey featuring two teams in South Korea, one in China, and four in Japan (Nikko Ice Bucks, Nippon Paper Cranes, Oji Eagles, Seibu Prince Rabbits). The league will take a heartbreaking blow next season though, as it looks like Japan’s oldest team, Seibu, will be unable to find a new sponsor and be forced to hang up their skates for good. My MIE league in Sendai is also feeling the economic pinch with my beloved Katsuyama rink set to be demolished this spring with no plans to replace it.
Last week, however, the same child-like excitement struck me as when I arrived at one of Sendai’s two other rinks for practice and was greeted by shiny new posters advertising the Asia League’s freshest addition-the Tohoku Free Blades. The team’s official approval has yet to be finalized, but if all goes well they will begin play in Fukushima this September. This should be a huge boost to hockey’s popularity in Tohoku and hopefully will give the sport some much needed media attention.
To date, the main coverage has been through the very unrealistic Japanese TV drama, Pride (aired in 2004). Despite the shows ridiculous depiction of the game, those in Japan who have found their way into hockey circles have made it their passion. You will rarely find someone who has been exposed to the fast-paced excitement, either as a spectator or participant, who doesn’t become hooked. Youtube link to a Paul Kariya tribute:
Clip from the incredibly unrealistic Japanese TV drama, “Pride”:
Asia League clip