MALMÖ – The first thing one notices about linesman Kenji Kosaka is the smile, the laugh, the good nature.
On ice or off, the 36-year-old native of Tokyo exudes warmth, not always the easiest thing to do during the heat of an international hockey game.
“My policy is to smile and have fun,” he explained in a quiet moment after working the Slovakia-Germany game at the 2014 IIHF World World Championship in Malmo. “Every game is an important game, but you must enjoy it as well. The referees and linesmen must be in control of the game, but it is important for me to talk to the players as well. For instance, whenever the goalie freezes the puck, I’ll tell him, ‘Good save.’ And he’ll say, ‘Thank you very much.’ This is important to me.”
Combine this inherent good nature with his stature – short and stocky – and his excellent skating speed, and one easily recalls Ray Scapinello, an apt comparison, to be sure.
Kosaka also acted as a linesman at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Sochi earlier this year, a great honour not just for him but for everyone in the Asian officiating community.
“Many Japanese referees offered me congratulations when I went to Sochi,” he admitted. “They were very happy for me. The U18 was a test event for the Olympics, so it was very important. The Olympics are so special.”
Still, his rise to U20 this year is something of a recent milestone in Japanese hockey. Shinichi Takizawa worked the 2009 U18, but the last man to work the lines at a higher level was Hirokazu Takahashi, who was a linesman at the 2000 IIHF World Championship.
“I started playing hockey when I was 13 years old,” Kosaka recalled, “but hockey isn’t as big in Tokyo as in Hokkaido. I played inline hockey for six years before I played ice hockey. When I was 24, I started refereeing inline, and two years later a friend of mine suggested I try ice hockey.”
Kosaka has a younger brother, Yasuhiro, now 31, who also played, but he didn’t have the same ambition to develop skills as an on-ice official.
“In Japan, you usually start as a linesman and then become a referee later,” Kosaka explained. “I worked in the Asia League as a referee. It is only for the IIHF that I work as a linesman.”
The fact that Kosaka can adapt from one duty to the other is a unique skill, but he jokingly makes no attempt to hide the fact he’d rather be a referee.
“The linesman is too busy!” he notes with a laugh, a fact which might well get him in trouble with the referees here in Malmö. “The linesman has to call all the offsides and icings, get the puck every time the goalie holds it. There is a lot to do! If players start to push each other after the whistle, the linesman has to get between them!”
Kosaka readily admits the biggest obstacle to becoming an IIHF referee is language related. “I want to be a referee, but my English isn’t good enough yet. It’s important to speak well because the referee must communicate with players and coaches. That’s why I’m taking classes and studying at home.”
Not married and without children, Kosaka stays busy working the Asia League at night, and he has a day job as well. “Referees in the Asia League are not full professionals. Even though it is the top league, I have another job. I work as a trainer and physical therapist. But I also referee at university and high school games.”
Kosaka has no satellite access to European leagues or the KHL in Japan, but he does follow the NHL closely, notably the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets. His affection for those teams, though, has nothing to do with the players or the cities but rather the team’s head athletic trainer, a friend from their university days.
Naoto “Nates” Goto, whom Kosaka refers to only as “Mister Goto”, worked for the Isles for several years before moving to Columbus in 2012. Goto managed to bring Kosaka over to New York a few years ago to officiate the team’s summer camp for rookies. “He’s very well-known in Japan,” Kosaka says with pride. “It was a great experience to go to the Islanders camp.”
“My passion is refereeing. I want to be known as the number-one referee in the Asia League so I can come to more IIHF tournaments. I would like to be at the World Championship.”
Given his personality, his abilities, and his determination, this is an ambition by no means impossible. “Mister Kosaka” is, like all officials, one focused man.