Tomita-san ready for farewell

Part II: Council’s “Iron Man” honoured after 34 years of service

24.09.2012
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In Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena: The 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Finland and Sweden was Shoichi Tomita’s last as an IIHF Council Member. Photo: Martin Merk

TOKYO – In Part II of the Q&A (click here for Part I), soon-to-be-retired IIHF Vice President Shoichi Tomita talks about his career as a Council member, the General Congress in Tokyo and how he wants to help Japanese ice hockey.

His career in the IIHF’s executive body will come to an end after 34 years of exemplary service when the new Council will be elected for a four-year term on Wednesday. Along with Murray Costello (CAN, see video) and Frederick Meredith (GBR), Shoichi Tomita will retire from the IIHF’s board.

Did you always want to have such a long hockey career, from player to IIHF Vice President?

I didn’t think about the IIHF when I was young. I was a player and later a member of the executive board of the Japanese Ice Hockey Federation. I was a commentator for NHKTV for nearly 27 years at many Olympic Games including Sapporo, Calgary and Lillehammer.

What did you do on TV?

The NHKTV needed a colour-type of commentator and asked me. Many Japanese people know about my name from TV, although they normally don’t see my face there. I liked to show the best hockey to the Japanese people. Showing is better than talking.

One time I invited players from the former Soviet Union including Vladislav Tretiak, and the Winnipeg Jets including Bobby Hull played in Japan before nearly 10,000 fans in the national arena in Tokyo.

That’s an amazing attendance. Do you think such numbers could be reached again in the future?

Unfortunately nowadays we don’t have any ice rinks in Tokyo in the current economic situation. It’s too expensive to make ice in a multifunctional arena. Only for figure skating they do it sometimes because we have top athletes who can generate money from sponsorships and TV.

But in ice hockey we play in Division I, therefore it works better in football or baseball where they play against top teams. We only had one goalie in the NHL for a short time, Yutaka Fukufuji with the Los Angeles Kings, but he went back to play in the Asia League.

Do you think this can be changed in the future?

Japanese hockey stopped to improve, but now as I’m leaving the IIHF Council, and with all my experience, it’s my responsibility to improve Japanese ice hockey again apart from the Asian program. How can we get a stronger team? How can we promote junior hockey and grassroots programs for kids?

These are important questions. So I won’t stop being involved in hockey. I want to help hockey in Japan and the Asian neighbourhood.

Many people in Japanese hockey were not so happy, saying Tomita-san is too busy with the IIHF and the Asian program, and asked me if I’m sure I represent Japan. But that was my responsibility as the IIHF’s Vice President for Asia and Oceania. But after September I will be free from any duties and can help the JIHF as much as possible.

The most important thing is to work on activities for the future.  I’m thinking about my life after my time in the IIHF Council. I could enjoy it in other ways, but I want to help the young generation in Japan.

Despite not being a top nation, Japan has the eighth-most players registered in a country. What can be done to make more out of this potential?

We have a very cold part of the country, the northern island of Hokkaido, which is a great region for ice hockey with cities like Kushiro, Tomakomai, Obihiro, Sapporo. They have good high schools and company teams. Therefore most hockey players come from Hokkaido and from the universities of Tokyo and Osaka.

If we had more than ten Asia League teams in Japan, all the young players would have a chance to play at that level, but we only have four. It’s not enough for our youth.

After improving the youth and university programs we also have to find new teams for the Asia League. We need to have more of a club team system like in Europe.

Countries like Denmark and Norway have improved very much because most of the players play in Sweden or Finland and other European countries. But most of the Japanese players don’t speak much English and only play in Japan. If young players speak English, they will have a better chance to play abroad.

That’s why we invited a team from the Russian [junior league] MHL to play in the 2012 IIHF U20 Challenge Cup of Asia so the Asian players will have more challenge against a Russian team. And maybe the Russian people will see some good Asian players who could play in Russia.

It would also be great to have a University Cup where the Japanese university champion could play university teams from Canada and the United States.

We must give young players more international opportunities, games, ambitions and dreams.

And there was even a Japanese player in the Russian junior league last season with Dynamo Moscow’s Makoto Araya.

Yes, now there’s a Japanese player in the Russian junior league. His father was a former national team player. There are also younger ones who started to play in Khabarovsk [the Russian KHL venue in the Far East].

In your long career you also chaired many tournament directorates. How was this part of your work?

At the top championships we always have many experts who know much about hockey and administration. But when I was a chairman in the lower divisions and juniors we had more problems.

I remember once when a Spanish U18 national team played in Estonia and it was -25°C. Most of the Spanish boys haven’t had such an experience before. The coach came to us and said they were not able to play because the dressing room was in another building and they had to walk outside and froze. I told them if they don’t like to play ice hockey there, they can go back anytime.

Boys at that age have to learn from such experiences. So I told that if they wanted to play, they should learn to play under such conditions too. It’s an experience for young people. It makes them stronger. It’s not only about ice hockey, it’s also human education. Sometimes I felt a bit like a father for the players when I was a chairman of a tournament. It’s about giving a good atmosphere for the audience and best conditions for the players.

Now your last Congress as a Council member will be held in your hometown of Tokyo, and in Asia for the first time. How do you feel before this event?

I’m looking forward to it, but I’m also a bit anxious. It’s something new for the Japanese Ice Hockey Federation and they just elected a new board last year, so they don’t know so well about IIHF events, so I have to help them. But we have many people who help also from the Japanese Olympic Committee and the bidding committee for the 2020 Olympic Games. Therefore I expect a good General Congress with people who feel comfortable in Tokyo.

If they go home and say ‘thank you and good-bye’, I will be very happy. But if they have lots of complaints or unhappiness, I will be disappointed. So I try my best to help. I’m looking forward to the “Goodbye Sho” and I really appreciate that the Congress comes to Tokyo and I will try to do my best.

I really appreciate the IIHF, all the Council members and office staff. Everybody has been so helpful to me and for my activities, otherwise I wouldn’t have managed to stay so long.

What’s your message to all the delegates coming to Tokyo?

Tokyo is very special for Western people. As much as possible I’d like to show the delegates the city and give them some information. We will have many volunteers. The volunteers are the key in events. They will communicate with the delegates and represent Tokyo. The federation is doing the work behind, but the volunteers who stand at the forefront are very important. Therefore we have to educate them well to help make a good atmosphere. I hope everybody will enjoy it in Tokyo and I’m waiting to welcome all delegates from all over the world.

MARTIN MERK
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