Undisputed champions

Stopped by earthquake in 2011, Free Blades win Asia League


The Tohoku Free Blades celebrate the Asia League title after edging the Oji Eagles 1-0 in the final series’ fourth game. Photo: Nagayama Reiji / Asia League Ice Hockey

HACHINOHE, Japan – They had to wait two years for this moment. This time they have the feeling of being champions for real. The Tohoku Free Blades defeated the Oji Eagles 1-0 to win the Asia League final series 3-1. 2,040 fans celebrated the triumph in Hachinohe in the Aomori Prefecture, the main venue among several venues in the Tohoku Region where the team plays its home games. Two years ago hundreds lost their homes in the city when the earthquake followed by a devastating tsunami hit the region.

At that time the Tohoku players were getting ready for practice 400 kilometres away in Koriyama when the earthquake happened. Everything was shaking at the ice rink, pieces of concrete fell down the wall. The players managed to creep out from the building.

The team was preparing for the first game of the Asia League final. The opponent, Anyang Halla from Korea, had just landed in Japan one hour ago and was on the bus when the disaster occurred.

Eventually, the series was called off and both teams were announced as co-champions. For Anyang it was the second title after becoming the first non-Japanese team to win the Asia League one year earlier in 2010. For Tohoku it was the first title, coming in the fourth season of the team’s existence.

Two years later, the players can feel like undisputed champions after a tight final series that ended with a win and a league trophy for their side.

The Free Blades finished second in the regular season with a 27-15 record but still 22 points behind the Oji Eagles Tomakomai, the oldest club team in the league, founded in 1925 and with several former NHL players and even an Olympic winner (Yuri Lyapkin) among its alumni. The teams would meet again in the final series. En route the Oji Eagles defeated Anyang Halla in a 3-0 sweep to make the finals while Tohoku won the other semi-final series against the Nippon Paper Cranes Kushiro 3-1. Since the first three games of the best-of-five series are played at the arena of the better-seeded team, the finals started in Tomakomai. The favourites got the first win before their home crowd of almost 2,000 fans. The two Saitos, Takeshi and Tetsuya, scored two goals for Oji in the first period, and Tohoku replied with a pair of goals from David Wrigley and Justin Fletcher in the last five minutes of regulation time. But at 6:12 of extra time it was Oji captain Masato Domeki who netted the game winner. The Tohoku Free Blades got the break they needed one day later. Again Takeshi Saito scored an early goal for Oji again, but Brad Farynuk tied it up in the third period and also scored the overtime goal at 11:39. Tohoku also won the third game on the opponent’s ice. This time it was not one of the three North American imports that came through, but instead Masahito Suzuki, who scored a hat trick in the 6-3 victory. It was a triumphant homecoming for the 29-year-old, who grew up in Tomakomai and played for Oji until 2009.

Thanks to the 2-1 lead the Tohoku Free Blades just needed one more win and had home-ice advantage for the last two games. Game 4 was again a tight contest but this time the goalkeepers, Michikazu Hata for Tohoku and Yuta Narisawa for Oji, guarded the net like a wall. Oji outshot Tohoku 40-31 but didn’t manage to overcome Hata. Go Tanaka, the Japanese national player who is both captain and scoring leader for Tohoku, scored the only goal of the match during a two-man advantage at 18:41 of the middle frame to end Oji’s reign in the Asia League. It has been the biggest success for the team from the northern part of Honshu, Japan’s main island, that is coached by Chris Wakabayashi, who is also an assistant coach for the Japanese national team. This time nothing, also not the clear regular-season winner, could stop the Free Blades from claiming the Asia League title for themselves. Wakabayashi and six players selected for the national team will now focus on the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest, Hungary, where Japan is one of the six teams that will battle for promotion to the Top Division along with another Asian team, Korea. Anyang Halla from Korea was the best non-Japanese team in the seven-team league behind Tohoku, Oji and the Nippon Paper Cranes but before the Nikko Ice Bucks, the other Korean team High1 Chuncheon and winless China Dragon from Shanghai. MARTIN MERK
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