KLAGENFURT, Austria – It doesn’t happen too often that top Japanese players move to play in Europe or North America.
On the rosters of the Japanese national team in the last nine years there hasn’t been more than one player each year from a club team outside of Asia.
Probably the most famous Japanese in pro league play is goalkeeper Yutaka Fukufuji, who played in North America for six years. Although he spent most of his time there with the Bakersfield Condors of the third-tier ECHL, the Kushiro native also made it to the NHL in 2006/2007 and spent four games between the pipes of the Los Angeles Kings as the first and so far only Asian-trained player in the league.
Japanese players who were called to the national team from non-Asian club teams include Masahito Nishiwaki, who spent one year with the ECHL’s Dayton Bombers; Go Tanaka, who played one year for German second-tier team ESV Kaufbeuren; and 19-year-old forward Yuto Osawa, who moved to the juniors of Mora IK last season and also played three games with the senior team in the second-tier Swedish league.
There are reasons why few Japanese players try to go abroad. Although Japan is just ranked 21st among men’s national teams, the country has a top-10 hockey community in size with over 15,000 registered players. That’s more than in countries like Austria, Belarus, Denmark, Italy, Latvia, Norway or Slovakia.
The eight-team Asia League includes four Japanese professional teams where players can play and get paid to play in their home country, while living with their people and in their unique culture and language. Playing at home also keeps the players in the eye of the Japanese ice hockey body for the national team selection.
Nevertheless, two Japanese players are giving Europe a try to collect experience abroad in their preparation of the season that starts on 7th September in the Asia League.
26-year-old Japanese defenceman Yosuke Haga spent the last four years with the Oji Eagles Tomakomai after going through college hockey in Japan and has been with the national team for six years.
He’s accompanied by his 21-year-old Oji teammate Kohei Mitamura. The forward moved to the Asia League as an 18-year-old. He has spent the last three years with Oji and was part of the men’s national team for the last two years.
While their teammates get ready for the new season in Japan, the duo has arrived in Austria for a three-week stint that came off thanks to the efforts of long-time Japanese national team coach Mark Mahon.
The German-Canadian dual citizen used his international contacts and found an open-minded counterpart in Manny Viveiros, who works for KAC as a Sport Director and has been with the Austrian national team for the last four years, including the last two as head coach.
The paths of the two coaches crossed at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I tournaments.
“I know Mark Mahon and met him through the IIHF competitions between Austria and Japan,” Viveiros said.
“He’s always looking for possibilities for good players from Japan to practise overseas and was looking for some players coming over a couple of weeks. We say absolutely yes if we have the opportunity to develop players. Hopefully we can help them develop for their future career, whether it’s in Japan or anywhere else.”
“Kohei and Yosuke shall learn how it is to work in the environment of a European club and to practise with European pros,” Mahon said about the reasons for the move. “The attitude, the team spirit and the locker-room language will be something entirely new for them. Klagenfurt will be a great experience for them from which they can only profit. The [Austrian league] EBEL has the stronger level than the Asia League where fast but less physical hockey is played.”
The Japanese duo completed their first pre-season week in the city of Austria’s record champion.
“They’re wonderful. They’re model young hockey players, who are very committed and work very hard. They’ve been very good young men and were welcomed well in the room,” Viveiros said.
“There’s a bit of a language barrier but hockey is a language that all of them understand. They travelled abroad with the national team. It’s not like they can’t survive abroad. They can adjust to that. Being in the room with the guys they adapted very well.”
“They skate extremely well and seem to be very smart players. They compete very hard and want to get better.”
Haga and Mitamura will practise two more weeks with KAC before going back to Japan joined by loads of new experiences and stories to tell.
The reunion for them and Mahon with the Austrians may come no later than next April when their two national teams will face off in the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Korea.
Two seasons ago at the event in Ljubljana, the Japanese defeated Austria for the first time in 33 years, 4-3, thanks to a Shuhei Kuji hat trick and Go Tanaka’s shootout winner.
There will certainly be some business to finish for the Austrians after the pleasantries in Klagenfurt.