SYOSSET, United States – After Yutaka Fukufuji’s short stint with the Los Angeles Kings, another Japan native is knocking on the door of the NHL. Shuhei Kuji, a Japanese national player from a college league is at the New York Islanders’ evaluation camp.
The history of Japan players in the NHL began in 1974, when the Buffalo Sabres drafted Taro Tsujimoto in the 11th round. It turned out Tsujimoto was a fictitious player. The club’s General Manager Punch Imlach was bored with the late-rounders, so he let his staff translate Sabres into Japanese to form a club name and let pick the first Japanese-looking name from the phone book, making a random Japanese man from Buffalo the star centre of the Tokyo Katanas.
It took almost two more decades until the first real Japan native was drafted with defenceman Miura Hiroyuki, in the 11th round, by Montreal. However, his experience was limited to six ECHL games with the third-tier Wheeling Thunderbirds.
Goalkeeper Yutaka Fukufuji became the second, and last, drafted player from Japan when the Los Angeles Kings took him in the eighth round in 2004. He’s been playing mostly in the ECHL, but was on the Kings’ NHL roster for four games and even played 96 minutes in the NHL as the first and lone Japanese.
Now there’s Shuhei Kuji. One might believe he’s also fictitious as he doesn’t appear in most internet player databases. Kuji has never played professional hockey in his native country. Until now, he played college hockey with Wasata University and will finish his study in social science in 2010. He plans to join the Oji Eagles of the Asian League upon graduation.
He was one of two college players on the Japanese national team at the 2009 IIHF World Championship Division I while the rest were professionals from the Asian League. He also played on the national team at the 2006 and 2007 Deutschland Cup.
Islanders GM Garth Snow invited Kuji after he was contacted by his university. Maybe it’s not coincidence that he landed in Long Island, as the club is owned by the Chinese-American businessman Charles Wang.
While John Tavares, the number-one draft pick from Canada, is the undoubted poster boy at the Islanders evaluation camp, the club also reports on its website the “really impressing speed” of the small (172 cm, 5’8”) Japanese forward.
The 22-year-old had a good debut with the national team at the Division I tournament in Lithuania, last April, winning bronze and scoring two goals, one assist in five games.
And now he’s practising with the Islanders, whizzing around Tavares and other high-rated prospects, and giving autographs to kids attending the camp.
“After watching Kuji for two days, his skating and his overall skills are not a problem at this level,” said Japan head coach Mark Mahon, who visited his player in the camp. “It is his decision making as the play moves much faster then the University level in Japan. Also the limited time and space is a factor with larger players and a smaller ice surface, but he has handled himself very well and according to Islanders coach Scott Gordon he has fit in very well and is a very attentive player.”
Kuji recognized that he’s practising at a completely new level, and wants to learn his lesson. “I need to become a more determined player on loose pucks and around the net score,” Kuji said. “You see how determined all the players are and I see that I need to increase my intensity.
“It was a great experience for Japanese hockey and for me to be able to come here and realize what NHL hockey culture is all about. There were so many fans, and the great interest around John Tavares and the other prospects. It really was great to see how major hockey is here. I need to continue to work on improving my game and to play hard to attract more fans to watch hockey and to increase the interest in Japanese hockey.”
Can Kuji become the first Japanese skater to crack the NHL? Usually, the prospects are not high for Asians. While they might be quick, agile, diligent, and have hockey sense, they are not the best shooters at the highest level, and most of them lack size. The average Japanese skater on this year’s national team measured 176 cm (5’9”), and Kuji was even the shortest and lightest player of his team.
But since the NHL started to enforce the rules stricter following the 2004-2005 lockout, ending some enforcers’ careers and bringing over more Europeans with fine hands, there’s also more room for the shorter guys. Why not a quick Japanese as an unconventional breakaway rocket?