ZURICH/TOKYO – With more than 1,000 games played, the Asia League goes into its tenth season this weekend.
The top ice hockey league of the Asian continent includes seven teams – four from Japan, two from Korea and one from China.
With Asia having a big winter sports event in the future when the 2018 Olympic Winter Games come to Korea, the Asia League aims to improve and help development of hockey in the Far East.
Last year it was the Oji Eagles from Tomakomai who won the Asian title in a final series against the Nikko Ice Bucks, backstopped by Yukata Fukufuji, the first and so far only Asian-trained player to play an NHL game.
It was the second time that Oji had won the league, in addition to 34 All-Japanese Championship titles.
Among the favourites this year will also be Anyang Halla. The Koreans have been among the top teams for the last few years and became the first non-Japanese champion of the league in 2010, but last season they lost to the Nikko Ice Bucks in the first playoff round. The team will also send players to the Finnish second-tier league to help them develop and possibly assist in the country’s Olympic ambitions.
High1 from Chuncheon will be the other Korean team. The other two Japanese teams are three-time Asian champion Nippon Paper Cranes from Kushiro and the Tohoku Free Blades.
The Free Blades became the first team from the Tohoku region in 2009 and even made it to the finals in 2011, but the big earthquake hit the region just while the team was practising once day before game one. The final series was eventually cancelled and the Free Blades and Anyang Halla declared co-champions.
The China Dragon is the only team from China and will play its games in Shanghai. Last year it included not only Chinese national players, but also five Japanese and four Canadians.
The games in Korea will be played in Anyang, Chuncheon and Goyang while the games hosted by the four Japanese clubs will be hosted in several cities: Kushiro, Tomakomai, Hachinohe, Tokyo, Yokohama, Sapporo, Nikko, Misawa, Toyohashi, Morioka and Obihiro.
During exhibition games not only the players were tested, but also officials as four new referees will be included this season.
Under the leadership of Asia League Referee in Chief Yasuo Fukuda, the Referee in Chiefs from Japan (Koji Yamada), Korea (Byung-Chul Lee) and China (Liheng Zhang) nominated their prospects to undergo the Asia League Referee Seminar. Beside the physical tests and classroom sessions all candidates were evaluated by the Referee in Chief during the exhibition games held in Tomakomai and Hachinohe.
“The first impression is not bad and everybody has done his best in a very challenging program. We have a very good co-operation in officiating between the three countries, which is also a pre-condition and the basement for successful work,” said Fukuda.
“From the officiating point of view the game officials will collect international experience, but they must also fulfil the requirements as the players play a good level,” said IIHF Vice President Shoichi Tomita.
“I’m very happy for the Asia League that it celebrates its 10th Anniversary. Nobody could imagine this when the league started ten years ago. The Asia League developed a lot and especially in the last congress we had very good discussions and we also have many ideas for the future.”
One of the young referees is Hongde Chi from China, who will take the challenge to become an Asia League referee.
“Hongde developed a lot in the last time and he has the potential to become a good referee,” said Chinese Referee in Chief Liheng Zhang. The youngster himself is happy to get the opportunity to demonstrate his performance: “I’m very lucky for this chance and I will give my best every day.”
New Chinese Asia League referee Hongde Chi with Chinese Referee in Chief Liheng Zhang.
“The atmosphere is very good and everybody is working together. In the last couple of days we discussed especially development programs. Partnership for progress is one of the principles we live and follow inside the IIHF, which means that everybody is requested to co-operate,” said IIHF Asian Sport Development Manager Harald Springfeld. “From the team and players point of view the level is quite good with very skilled players. They have a lot of potential.”
The season starts on Saturday and Sunday with the back-to-back games Oji Eagles vs. Tohoku Free Blades in Tomakomai, Nikko Ice Bucks vs. China Dragon in Nikko and the Korean clash Anyang Halla vs. High1 Chuncheon in Anyang.