LJUBLJANA – The player of the day on Wednesday at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A came from Japan. Shuhei Kuji almost singlehandedly led his team to a surprise victory against Austria.
“I was surprised to score a hat trick. There were some lucky goals in there, but you still have to shoot them and to be good to score them,” the 24-year-old said after the game.
He was all smiles after the game when talking to IIHF.com and two Japanese media representatives.
“We came as a young group with not too big expectations back in Japan, but we could prove that we can play at this level,” Kuji said with the help of a translator and of his Canada-born teammate Aaron Keller, who speaks the language after having played in Japan for 13 years, the last ten in Kuji’s hometown for the Oji Eagles.
Canada-born head coach Mark Mahon knew who deserved special credit. “We had a special game from Kuji who really showed up,” he said at the press conference after the game.
Who is Kuji, who scored all three Japanese goals during 65 minutes of play against Austria before the Japanese succeeded in a shootout to earn the first win against Austria since 1979?
The player hails from Tomakomai, a hockey city of 170,000 inhabitants on Hokkaido, the northern island and hockey hotbed of the country, and home of the Oji Eagles for which he just played his second pro season.
The smallish forward started his pro career in 2010 after graduating in social science at the Waseda University. From Japanese college hockey he joined the Oji Eagles and led the team to the Asia League title this year, scoring 32 goals and notching 59 points in 43 games this season.
Before that he had only played in one IIHF men’s tournament, the Division I event in 2009, and in two Deutschland Cups. Now he’s back on the roster after improving his game following his graduation.
“Kuji is a player who had the chance to play on the national team at a young age when he was a university student,” Mahon said. “But he was left off a couple of World Championship teams because he wouldn’t compete inside, he wouldn’t use his speed and go to the net. He has been a pro for two years now and has learned to score goals. I’ve challenged him a lot and I know his club coaches challenge him a lot to be more of an offensive leader and play inside.”
“I told him when I met him in the hallway now that he’s arrived. He has played really consistent and he’s our offensive leader.”
Kuji is no complete stranger to readers of this website. In 2009 there was a story on him when he participated in the New York Islanders’ evaluation camp.
“It was a great experience for me. It was the first time I played at a high level,” Kuji said. “Since then I’ve been training hard to get to this level and now I have proved that I can play at this level.”
Mahon accompanied him at that time.
“Those experiences are unbelievable, also to play in two Deutschland Cups in ’06 and ’07,” Mahon said. “He’s been in the program for quite a bit and has stepped into a leadership role now and that’s great for us. He’s fast and so dynamic and in a great shape.”
“If he continues to grow and get stronger, maybe he can do more. Because we need goal scorers and it’s nice to have a dynamic player like him.”
With his level of play Kuji could even become a candidate to play in another league, but so far he doesn’t have plans for next season yet.
“I don’t know yet,” Kuji replied with a smile and glimpse of surprise, “but if somebody calls me or drafts me, I might come.”