MORA, Sweden - A standout both on and off the ice in his native country, 19-year-old Yuto Osawa opted to travel west to Sweden to continue his development - a move set to pay dividends for Japanese hockey in the future.
When Ronald Sätterman scrutinised his roster ahead of this season, a kid from Hokkaido surprised the newly appointed head coach of Mora IK:s under-20 team.
"I must admit I didn't know enough about hockey in Japan and it was a deal that had been done before I arrived to the club," said Sätterman about the transfer of Osawa to Mora. "So when I saw that there was a Japanese player in our under-20's, I expected him to end up with our affiliate team, Orsa Hockey in division two, but when I then during our first practises I very quickly realised that this kid was good."
The story of how a teenage Asian prospect ended up in small town Sweden has its beginnings at the tail end of last season. The Oji Eagles had then approached Mora about the possibility of sending over one of their youngsters, a highly-rated young playmaker, overseas to develop his game in Europe. With the Japanese club taking care of all costs, the two teams shook hands on a gamble that has since benefited both parties.
Hailing from Tomakomai, a city of some 170,000 inhabitants on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four major islands, Osawa had just finished his second pro season for Oji. Packing his bags and leaving family, friends and teammates behind for a year in the Northern division of Sweden's top junior league, SuperElit Norra, he immediately found out upon his arrival that being big in Japan wasn't quite the same at his new club.
"In Oji I was much bigger than other Japanese players. In Sweden, all the players are bigger and stronger, so because of their body size and speed of the hockey it was really difficult for me to play my game the first couple of months," said the 181 cm tall Osawa.
Sätterman recalls Osawa's first few practices with his new club as he was trying to come to terms with his new environment: "Yuto was very focused and stayed on after practice to work a bit extra, but I also had to tell him to be a bit more egoistic at times out on the ice and not always look for that pass to his teammates," he said.
But playing out of position was not the only stumbling block for Osawa in his attempts to settle in. Although Mora had a wealth of previous experience of players coming from near and far to play for the club, Osawa was their first player from Japan. Speaking only a smattering of English, and with no Japanese interpreter at hand, communication was a problem, as sometimes not only hockey can do the talking.
Sätterman said: "What I wrote on the board in terms of tactics Yuto would know better than the Swedish players, but things got hard when it came to communication with his teammates. As a coach it was also hard for me to give him more as the small details that I can help him with to improve was sometimes difficult to get across."
While the language barrier contributed in holding back Osawa's game, it was a sudden breakthrough a few months into his career in Sweden that in a flash improved his situation.
"The other foreign guys in the team from Slovenia and Austria who speak English would normally just come up to me and tell me if things were wrong. For Yuto it was different. He started as a forward, and it took up until November before it came out during a personal meeting that his position was center. He had not told us this before," said Sätterman.
After moving back to his favourite position, his game now started to blossom. After captaining Japan in winning gold at the U20 World Championships Division II, Group A in Brasov, Romania in December, Osawa's stock continued to rise following his return to Mora, and very soon he was rewarded for his performances.
After superstars Anze Kopitar and Bobby Ryan, who donned Mora's red and white jerseys during the NHL labour dispute, returned west Osawa's play got him a call-up to the seniors. He made his HockeyAllsvenskan debut for Mora on the road at Tingsryd in mid-January this year and followed it up by scoring his first point for an injury-ravaged Mora team in his second game for the seniors. Both were great performances that not only boded well for the future but also made him feel more at home.
"When I get to play more of my own game as a center, which is my position, I now feel a lot more comfortable and it is now a very good experience for me," he said.
His development in Sweden has been closely monitored by Mark Mahon, the Canada-born head coach of Japan. Pleased with Osawa's progress Mahon hopes the success can pave way for more Japanese players to follow in his footsteps. Following Japan's exit at the Olympic Pre-Qualification tournament on home ice in Nikko in November last year, Mahon addressed that a bigger emphasis should be put on young players to go abroad, experience international ice hockey from an early age, which in the longer run will benefit the Japanese game.
"There is definitely a need for more players to go, but we need to look at the basic life obligations, like getting an education and language barrier," he said. "From a hockey standpoint, it is obviously the best avenue, but it got to make sense in the full package, so we got to challenge our athletes to speak English and just to have the courage to go," said Mahon who can see that Osawa's time in Sweden has had a great impact on his development.
"Definitely, his ability to play in small areas is much better. He is a lot stronger on the puck, and by far our most consistent player in the under-20's as he is challenged every day in Sweden so he has to bring that professional attitude to the rink to be at his best every day, and he played a pretty big role in the Mora team, so he has really shown that he is not intimidated under any circumstances," he said.
So what does the future hold for the Japanese youngster who will turn 20 in October? Sätterman, who recently switched from a position of head coach of Mora's under-20's to lead their under-18 team, would not rule out a continued cooperation effort with Japan.
"Yuto is a very good player, very popular with his teammates and will be important for his team in the second half of the season as they are pushing upwards in the table, and if there would be more players like him available then surely we would be interested," he said.
But with the deal being a one-year agreement, and the added linguistic difficulties on top of that, Osawa's next career move, according to Mahon, should at least in the shorter term to return to Hokkaido to test himself in the Asia League.
"I think the next step he has to do is to play in Oji, and see how he can do as a pro in Japan. Then we can see if he wants to go outside again, which would be, in terms of development the logical next step. He has established himself as a main player at Mora, in the top Swedish junior league, now he should look to established himself as a top line player at Oji, potentially play in the national team within a couple of years and then see if he wants to go abroad again," said Mahon.
Osawa himself sets his sights even further, in an ascending career where he has already proved his doubters wrong once: "I am aiming for the Olympics," he said.